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What causes stress eating?

Michelle May


Whether I’m speaking, facilitating a retreat, or having a conversation on Facebook, stress is always mentioned as one of the top two triggers for overeating. (Boredom is the other one.) While it is not possible to eliminate stress, learning to recognize, manage, and prevent excessive stress is essential. Let’s start by understanding what causes stress eating.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, stress can:

  • Protect you from harm.
  • Help you react quickly in threatening situations.
  • Signal you to respond to changing circumstances.
  • Motivate you to perform to the limits of your ability.
  • Add excitement to your life (think roller coasters!)

However, when you experience excessive or chronic stress, or lack adequate skills to cope with stress, it takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Since a stress-free life is not possible or even desirable, it’s important to learn to manage it, before it manages you.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s response to an event or situation that is threatening, overwhelming, or harmful, whether real or perceived.

stressed womanThat is a critical point because much of the stress people experience results from their perception of a situation. That’s good news because that means that you can change your perception and change your level of stress. More on that in this post.

Stress results from your body’s natural instinct to protect itself: the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Such reactions were useful when your ancestors frequently faced life and death situations (think saber tooth tiger). In our modern environment society, few situations are life and death, yet your body still reacts as if they are.

The Stress Sequence

When you’re faced with a challenge, whether it is true physical danger, a deadline, or a traffic jam, a sequence of events is triggered:

  • The hypothalamus sends impulses through the endocrine (hormone) and autonomic nervous systems.
  • These signals produce a surge of energy by making various organs dump “stress chemicals,” specifically cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream.
  • These stress chemicals boost your heart rate and blood pressure, dilate your blood vessels, and release glucose (sugar) into your blood stream.
  • They also cause hyperventilation (rapid breathing), muscle tension, perspiration (sweating), dilated pupils, and relaxation of the rectum and bladder, and will pause your digestion as blood is shifted from the gastrointestinal tract to the skin and muscles.

The purpose of the stress sequence is to mobilize you for quick action.

What causes stress eating?

When the stress response is out of proportion to the actual threat, or when mobilization isn’t possible or helpful, you will experience dis-stress.

For example, when you over-react to small hassles or you allow little frustrations to pile up, you’re less able to handle situations effectively. (We’ll talk more about how thoughts and perceptions contribute to stress in this post.)

Stress can wear down your body, exhausting you, and weakening your defense against disease (dis-ease). As a result, you may experience gastrointestinal (stomach and digestive) problems, depression, anxiety, headaches, trouble sleeping and insomnia, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Stress can also lead to distress habits like stress eating, smoking, drinking, substance use, and maladaptive attempts to manage stress like overworking.

It’s important to pay attention to the effects of stress on your mind and body. While it may be tempting to go on another diet to control stress eating, you can learn how to figure out the causes of stress eating, such as the real and perceived sources of stress in your life.

This article is updated from a previous version.

If you enjoyed this article, here are three more to help you:

Stress Eating: Stress Management 101

What to Do Instead of Stress Eating: Stress Management 102

Taking My Own Advice about Handling Stress

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