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Mental Health

How to Stop Stress Eating Once and For All

More than 70 percent of us know the feeling! Here, our experts share how to curb your impulses, stop stress eating, and discover ways to feed our spirit.

Get curious

When we’re stressed, our eating behavior is one of the first things to change, confirms psychologist Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., psychologist and researcher on eating disorders and author of Lies We Tell Ourselves. How to take back control? Just ask yourself what you’re really feeling so you can begin to problemsolve. If you’re feeling lonely, can you call a friend or Skype with grandkids? Switching into a questioning mindset expands our thinking beyond the tunnel vision stress causes, allowing us to see solutions.

Take comfort in values

Emotional eating often comes from seeking pleasure when what we really crave is comfort, says psychologist Susan Albers, Psy.D., psychologist at the renowned Cleveland Clinic and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Hanger Management. “Pleasure is fleeting, leaving us wanting more and more, while comfort is sustainable and comes from within.” To distinguish between the two, just ask yourself, is this leading me away from a feeling I want to avoid, or leading me to a feeling I want to savor? That chocolate cake, for example, is a momentary distraction, while something like gratitude journaling is truly comforting because it represents your long-term hopes. Indeed, taking just 10 minutes to reflect on your values releases feel-good hormones that crush cravings and boost self-esteem.

‘Feed’ your brain

Your senses can clear your mind of stress, assures Albers. “Use all five to describe your environment in this moment.” Gaze at your houseplant and note its many shades of green; take in the aroma of the roses outside your window; feel the cool kitchen tile beneath your feet… “This stimulates your brain, crowding out stress cravings and making you feel stronger and more centered.”

Spark new rituals

A “secret” stress trigger? Lacking structure, which can lead to boredom, reveals psychologist Amanda Baten, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Integrative Therapies in New York City. The fix: Infuse meals with a little creativity to encourage more mindful munching. Consider having, say, “Throwback Thursday” by indulging in comfort foods from your childhood or nibbling on a cookie with breakfast. Enjoying a treat at the start of a meal helps us eat less as the day goes on.

Write it off

Getting anxieties down on paper, then ripping it up “outsources” stress, so we’re no longer internalizing it and turning to food for comfort. Jotting down a few lines about our worries is even linked to choosing lower-calorie foods. Says Warren, “Our stressors may not change for a while — but we can change our response.”

Ditch ‘zebra thinking’

Looking at things in black and white makes us too hard on ourselves, says Albers. Saying things like, I’ll only eat vegetables from now on, is black-and-white “zebra thinking,” leaving you no leeway. Instead of beating yourself up, let yourself admit, that cupcake was good, and I enjoyed it! Guilt increases stress eating, which is why our experts agree the best way to curb it is to forgive yourself.

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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