Mindful Eating Programs and Training

Mindful Eating Programs and Training

Stress Eating: Stress Management 101

Michelle May


If you struggle with stress eating, you may have tried lots of diets to help you curb the problem. However, as you learned in What causes stress eating?, stress is your body’s reaction to a real or perceived threat.

The solution to stress eating isn’t to munch on celery sticks! The solution to stress eating is to understand what’s causing the stress and learn stress management skills to cope with it!

Managing Stress Eating

In Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, we introduced a strategy called FEAST: Focus, Explore, Accept (or Allow), Strategize, Take Action. Instead of immediately reaching for food, FEAST the next time you feel like stress eating.

In this article we will focus on the first three steps of FEAST. Click here for the last two steps.

Step 1: Focus

When you’re experiencing stress, your impulse might be to power through, freak out, or stick your head in the sand (procrastinating, eating, drinking – you get the idea). As we’ve all noticed, behaviors such as busyness, overworking, smoking, overeating, drinking alcohol to excess, isolation, and taking our frustration out on others, perpetuate the stress reaction.

Instead of trying to escape what you are experiencing, pause and take a few deep breaths. Breathing will calm your nervous system and help you focus on the present moment.

Step 2: Explore

Do a slow head to toe scan (see Body-Mind-Heart Scan in chapter 2 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat). Become aware of your physical sensations, your thoughts, and your emotions.

Observe how your body is reacting, what you’re thinking about, what you are feeling, and what you’re doing as a result without judging it. Just observe what is there with curiosity.

Explore for physical, mental, and emotional sources of stress. Some situations are universally stressful, such as the loss of a loved one or the risk of bodily harm, whereas others are uniquely stressful to the individual.

Physical – Sources of physical stress include fatigue, sleep deprivation, illness, pain, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and other physical concerns. Not only are these stressful on your body, they can leave you more susceptible to stress from other sources.

Thoughts – Remember the Thought-Feeling-Action-Result cycle (TFAR)? (Chapters 4 and 18 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.) The experience of stress is often triggered by a thought. In other words, stress frequently results from your perception and interpretation of life’s events.

Therefore, whether an event is stressful is often dependent on the individual. For instance, to one person, just the thought of speaking in public will cause a pounding heart, dry throat, and inability to utter a word, while to another person (me!), it is an exciting opportunity to get one’s views across. In other words, one (wo)man’s stress is another (wo)man’s pleasure!

However, until you pause to become aware of your thoughts, you may not be aware of that they are the source of your stress. Are any of these thoughts that can cause stress familiar?

  • “I’ll be late!””
  • “I feel like everything is out of control!”
  • “I have to get this perfect.”
  • “Why did I say that?”
  • “Why did I do that?”
  • “How could that happen?”
  • “I want everyone to like me.”
  • “I have too much to do!”
  • “I shouldn’t eat this.”
  • “Why did I eat that?”
  • “What will they think?”
  • “I am not good enough.”
  • “It’s not fair!”
  • “I have to be right.”
  • “I can do it all, have it all, and be it all!”

Note that most of these thoughts are about the past or the future, not about the present moment. That’s important because you have absolutely no control over the past or the future. But you are in charge of what you think about right now.

Emotional – As you explore your feelings, you may notice boredom, loneliness, anger, frustration, happiness, and myriad other emotions. Emotions provide information about what you need. Practice noticing what you’re feeling without judging it.

Step 3: Accept (or Allow)

Let’s face it: Life places a lot of demands on our energy and time. This often creates unrealistic expectations and a sense of urgency, leading to stress.

It’s important to respect your own personal strengths and limitations and use self-compassion when you are experiencing stress:

“I’m feeling overwhelmed and tense. I can’t do everything on my to do list; no one could, but I’m doing my best-and that will have to be good enough for now.”

When you accept the situation (and yourself) as it is in this moment, and just allow it to be, you won’t compound the stress response by overreacting to it. It’s like imagining yourself at the center of the tornado. You are calm and centered while everything whirls around you.

This article is updated from a previous version.

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

What Causes Stress Eating?

What to Do Instead of Stress Eating: Stress Management 102

Taking My Own Advice about Handling Stress

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