Food provides us with comfort, but when used as a mechanism to cope with stress, it can feel out of control and cause health concerns, both physical and psychological. Stress eating occurs when a person uses food as a source of comfort or stress-buster. This kind of eating is also thought to fill an emotional void or sense of emptiness. Alcohol, cigarettes, even recreational drugs, are often linked with a person needing to relieve stress.
In India, with its varied geography and culture, comfort food varies from Kanji, rasam and rice in the South, to dal chawal / khichdi in the north. Every culture has their own version of comfort food – this is something that goes back generations where food is associated with care, love, and comfort.
Emotionally triggered eating — stress eating or emotional eating or binge eating — as they are better known, have more complex origins. This kind of eating is often triggered by a stressor, to which the behavioural response is to indulge your cravings or eat.
Why Do You Stress Eat?
Whether it’s a bottle for a hungry baby or a hot meal on a cold day, food in its myriad forms is associated with positive and calming emotions. While eating a filling meal at lunch is a necessity, a bag of chips or two or three is never consumed by necessity but by something more complex than a rumbling tummy.
How Do You Identify Stress Eating?
Stress eating is often habitual and ongoing. Situational eating is not a bad thing, for instance, an ice cream with your kids to mark the first day of summer vacations, or a piece of cake on your birthday / anniversary. There are certain instances, however, when your negative emotions get the better of you, and you find yourself having a binge episode. The fallout of such an episode can be varied:
In the above-mentioned situations, food is the replacement for known coping mechanisms like exercise and meditation. If you are eating rather than taking in a relaxing bath, there is a problem. If you’re eating rather than taking a long walk to stop yourself from feeling awful, there is a problem. If you’re eating while bored rather than read a book, there is a problem. So, what does emotional eating look like? Stress eating follows a cycle:
Difficult emotions can be difficult to process, and our response to them can be to resume the stress/ emotional eating cycle again as a way of coping.
How Do You Tackle These Concerns
To be able to sit down and take stock of behavioural patterns and habits is a huge ask for anyone. However, there are simple ways in which to do this without feeling overwhelmed by the task.
- Address any unresolved stress: For instance, if you find yourself in a toxic relationship or work environment, try to speak to a trusted friend to begin with, someone non-judgemental who will be able to listen to you without undermining your feelings. If you would like this to be more confidential, approach a professional for help.
- Use mindfulness and adopt a non-judgemental approach: Our own judgement can oftentimes be unproductive. Being more mindful about eating, can help in turning our relationship with ourselves and food to a more balanced and nourishing place.
- Be compassionate about the calories consumed: Adopting a compassionate approach to yourself when you do stress eat can be important in breaking the cycle of stress eating. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love.
Emotional or stress eating is not gender specific. The best way to handle this is to be more conscious of what you are doing and take mindful action that suits your temperament and your needs. The solutions are as varied as the people who seek help. Like most mental health concerns, the process requires time and effort, but the results are a happier and more mindful you.
Credits – Dr Divya Kannan, Clinical Psychologist, Cure.fit