Do you reach for food under stress? - Four Keys to Retrain this Habit

This adorable guy came to greet us when we entered the retreat resort.

This adorable guy came to greet us when we entered the retreat resort.

Many months ago, I committed to going on a retreat where I would be initiated in Reiki, an ancient Japanese energy healing technique. I was feeling burnt out and fed up with my current work situation and had heard the tool could help me relieve stress.  When we arrived at the retreat center, I was delighted by it’s beauty and serenity. I could sense my body relaxing as my teacher drove further away from the city and into the secluded retreat center, where we were first greeted by horses.

We stayed in an ecolodge with no access to internet and a  composting toilet (kinda gross by the end... but you could say it was an interesting part of the experience :) ).  My teacher encouraged me to shut down my phone and tune into the land to Ronora, to see what she had to teach me.

So having come from 5 years in the corporate work environment and a background in engineering, I know it takes my “logical” mind sometimes a while to get on board with slowing down.  “Seriously? Walk around and talk to the plants?” Of course, had this been years ago, I would have listened to that voice and closed myself off to the experience. As I’ve done more coaching and self-awareness work, I recognize that this voice is something I can separate myself and learn to calm down.  (This is a key I teach a lot of my clients when it comes to overcoming stress and binge eating (more on that later in a later post!))

On the first day, I found it really hard to relax and be quiet.  However, by day 3, my mind and body felt so peaceful. The retreat center and the work we did really helped me to slow down.

Before I was back to Chicago, my teacher advised that before I rush out into the world, that I give myself sometime to just relax and do a Reiki session on myself.  This was huge for me because as someone who is so used to rushing around all the time, it was comforting to know I had a great tool to be able to center myself and then make choices from that place. It became apparent to me that I had gotten addicted to stress, as I see so many of my clients are, with the constant rushing around we do from home to work and back.

So what is stress?  Stress is part of our sympathetic nervous system and is meant to help us survive.  When we perceive a threat, our brain and body starts to form a cocktail of chemicals that prepare us to fight or flee.  Our focus narrows, we move more quickly, and it’s almost like time speeds up. So while it can be helpful for a short-term and quick energetic boost (such as fighting a tiger), when we start to perceive today’s modern day challenges as tigers it can take a toll on our health, emotional wellbeing and our relationships.

As stress gives us that “tunnel vision,” we don’t always make the most rational choices.  We go for what’s quick, easy, and effective in the short-term but don’t think about the long-term.  As humans, I don’t believe we “self-sabotage” ourselves. In fact, every action we take has a positive intention under it.  Because many of us don’t know how to handle these intense emotions (like stress) or feel like we’re victim to them, our efforts to cover up that emotion with food, sex, gambling, or drugs is our effort to change how we feel.  Food itself affects our biology and therefore can make us feel better temporarily. (If it didn’t have the side effect of making us feel bloated, constipated, and heavy… then I’d say otherwise it would be a good method to deal with stress).

Here’s the thing - there will always be stress in our lives.  Change inherently causes stress, even if that change is something positive, such as get a new job or going on a date with someone new.  So it’s important to start developing other methods and strategies to handle it better.

This is the lovely Eco-Lodge we stayed at during the retreat!

This is the lovely Eco-Lodge we stayed at during the retreat!

Are you someone who turns to food under stress?  If you want to start shifting this pattern, I recommend to start making peace with your emotions and finding other ways to manage them.  Here are 4 keys to break the stress eating habit.

  1. Pay attention to and experiment what activities, places, people, and practices that help you to slow down and de-escalate stress

Get out a pen and paper and answer the following:

  • What activities help you to feel calm and centered?

  • What places do you feel the most calm?  It could be in nature or by the water. Perhaps it’s a walk in the park.  Perhaps, like one of my clients, you can find an empty room at work where you can recollect yourself

  • With what people do you find your energy rise vs. drain?  - “Energy” is contagious. After all, have you ever been with someone else who is stressed and their mentality and attitude rubs off on you?  Or when someone is calm and collected, their energy also rubs off on you. Pay attention to any trends you see.

This list can can be a good reference for you to find what sorts of activities or practices can help you manage your stress.

2. Schedule some regular self-care

Have you heard like attracts like?  Perhaps you’ve had a day where you “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” and that overwhelmed mood carried throughout the day.  The funny thing is when we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we tend to attract other things that cause us to feel more stressed and overwhelmed.  Things that normally are not a big deal seem to increase in size under stress. It’s like when I’m stressed after a long day, cooking is the last thing I want to be doing.  But on weekends when I’m feeling more spacious and calm, cooking is a fun and relaxing activity.

Start treating yourself like a Queen by scheduling regular self-care routines.  I recommend doing some sort of routine first thing in the morning. For example, you could eat a healthy breakfast, do some stretching, meditate, and journal before starting your day.

It could also be good do this after a long-day, when you’re transitioning home from work or school.  Often times, these transition periods are where people start turning to food to fill in the empty space.  For me, Reiki has been a great practice for this.

One of my clients started getting regular massages which was huge for her.  Having a relaxation routine to look forward to helped reassure her that she would have time to breathe and recollect herself after the busy-ness of work.

3. Start practicing other coping mechanisms to help with stress in the moment

It’s great also to have some go-to techniques that you can use to help you de-escalate your stress, especially that you can use in place of reaching for food in that moment.

Some ideas:

  • Take a 10 min walk

  • Play some music and dance

  • Meditate

  • Talk to a friend

  • Take a nap

  • Talk to your coach/therapist/mentor

Take a look at your lists above from Key # 1 and see what resonates most with you.

4.  Address the root cause of your stress

While developing healthier coping mechanisms is a great, if we’re coping with something, then in some sense we are bracing ourselves for real or perceived pain and helplessness in the situation.  There’s a concept known as “learned helplessness” where over time we learn to stop trying to change a situation because our attempts in the past have been unsuccessful.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the analogy of the baby elephant. When a baby elephant is young, the trainer will tie the elephant to the rope and drive the rope into a stake in the ground.  The baby elephant will tug at the rope but eventually learn that it is too weak to unroot the stake. However, when the elephant has grown to be 2 tons and could easily rip the stake out of the ground, it still believes it’s too small or weak to do so and does not try.

In a way, it’s a sad analogy but very much describes what I see happens in many of our lives.  When we’re younger, we learn that we can or cannot do certain things and as we get older we often still believe those limiting beliefs.  For example, I had a client who had a hard time fitting in her exercise routine because of a belief that she always had to “take the lead” in her relationships, organizations, etc.  She was always volunteering therefore to take up responsibilities, leaving little time for herself. After our coaching was complete, we shifted this belief and helped her get clear on what was important to her where she would take the leads vs. where she would let things go and let others be in charge.  This freed time up for her so she could ensure she had time for self-care activities.

Or for myself, for a long time I would eat when I was bored at my work.  It was a sense of “stuckness” and lack of clarity of where to go next in my career prompted me to reach for food to cope.  With the support of my coach, I was able to change this habit, find a career I loved today, and now get to make a living helping others develop a healthy relationship with food and build a life they’re excited about.

In the Food & Body-Love Program group & 1-1 coaching, one of the biggest things we explore is different techniques to better manage stress in the moment and to problem-solve for the long-term.  My clients tell me that the tools we learn together are things they continue to practice for life.

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to apply for the “Jumpstart to Food Freedom” Consult here.

Thanks for reading!

Stay well, eat well, and savor all that life has to offer you because life is simply too short not to!

Above all, love,