Look, I take some pride in my diet. I try to eat right, even when that’s not easy. But stress can be one big motivator for picking up and polishing off that bag of chips, and I, for one, am not immune to the allure!
Of course, I have wondered why this happens, and I want to share what I’ve found out with you.
When you get stressed out, you can go into what is known as the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)–your brain’s famous “fight or flight” response. This is the mode in which your brain can quickly receive danger messages and activate all of your systems at one time to respond to that threat. Other systems in the body are deactivated during this time or become less responsive so you have the resources you need to handle the incoming danger.
Whenever the SNS is activated, what your body starts to look for is processed food and sugar as that’s the kind of stuff that can be converted to glucose quickly and then be used for energy right away. Of course, your body doesn’t know that you are not actually in physical danger and therefore don’t need the extra energy. All it knows is that you are feeling stressed out as you sit on the couch and watch the news, so it assumes there’s danger that you need to run from and it wants more glucose and calories to meet that “need.”
On top of this, during SNS activation, your prefrontal cortex is no longer in the driver’s seat, and that’s the part of your brain responsible for impulse control. Your brain’s threat response system is also turned on, and you may crave bad foods because they make you feel good when all of this is going on.
All causes aside, there are some things you can do to combat stress eating. Breathe deeply from your stomach for a few minutes when you feel stress-related cravings hit to help ease your body’s state. Exercise has been shown to ease stress, as reported by the Mayo Clinic, and regular meditation may help you relax, too (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469).
Stress eating is understandable and an easy habit to fall into when you are under stress for prolonged periods of time. But once you know the science behind those familiar cravings, you can take some more control back over your eating.