Authored by: Erin Risius, MA, LPC – Director of Behavioral Health at Hilton Head Health
Do you find yourself emotionally eating or mindlessly overeating? If so, you are not alone. There is a surplus of food in the fridge or cupboard, non-stop anxiety-producing news, and more alone or family time in the past month than many of us have ever experienced. These are unusual times, so of course, food may be the go-to for taking the edge off of stress or to occupy your time. If food has been the learned way to provide immediate (but temporary) relief from stress or a way to distract from boredom in the past, then this tendency may certainly be rearing its head.
Whether food is used for stress management, or mindless snacking has increased simply because it’s there, here are 5 tips for getting out of auto-pilot with stress or habitual overeating.
When an urge to eat strikes and you know you aren’t physically hungry:
Research shows that deep breathing lowers our blood pressure, slows down breathing rate, and makes us feel calmer and more relaxed. Many of us feel stressed right now and our routines for self-care have also been interrupted as we adapt to a new ‘normal’. No matter our situation, we can rely on deep breathing to relax, center, and calm our minds and bodies when anxiety strikes. When we feel better, we make better self-care choices. If we can turn down the dial on stress, even just a little, it will provide the opportunity to move from reaction to response with our food choices.
I want to normalize that even if you end up turning to food, this seemingly small step of taking five deep breaths can help reduce how much is eaten because it allows us to unhook from auto-pilot mode and to be more present in the moment. Enhancing self-awareness in the moment allows for a conscious choice to be made which is a crucial first step for better managing how we respond to food thoughts.
The urge to eat when not physically hungry may simply be out of habit. This is especially true if we tend to eat while doing other activities, such as watching TV or working on the computer. The key is to unlink these closely associative behaviors and to redirect yourself to another activity. For example, instead of eating and watching TV, take out a jigsaw puzzle, or do some floor stretches. Unlinking these associated behaviors and redirecting your attention to a healthier alternative helps to reduce mindless snacking. The strategy of using redirects also works with emotional eating.
If we can distract and delay eating for 10 – 15 minutes by doing something else instead (or first), this window of time allows for the urge to decrease so that we can bypass eating or if we do, not eat as much. Remember – an emotional or habitual food thought is a suggestion, not a command, but in order for it to not feel like a demand redirecting our attention to another activity provides the opportunity for that eating urge to dissipate.
Mindless overeating could be happening because of your food environment. What foods are immediately accessible to you? Are you trying to rely on willpower with your food type and portions? The phrase ‘out of sight and out of mind’ really does work in this situation. Willpower…? Not so much. If you live alone, it may be easier to manage your food choices by what you choose to have in your home. For some, being alone at home with no one watching or judging what you eat is the trigger that unleashes overeating.
For others, the temptation may have to do with the types of foods (and drinks) their loved ones bring home that is hard to resist. If you are trying to make better food choices, but you live with people who don’t share the same eating goals as you, see if they can at least put their favorite snack food (or drinks) in a place you can’t see it every time you enter the kitchen. It is important to do a reality check on your food environment and your living situation. Evaluate what has been working or not working and experiment with a strategy that doesn’t rely on willpower as much as what is immediately accessible to you – or not – in your kitchen.
Some of us are literally stuck inside, or afraid to go outside because of the need to physically distance. I recently spoke to a professional acquaintance in India who has not left her home since mid-March and she won’t be able to go outside her home until mid-May at the earliest. Where she lives it is literally impossible to go out her front door for a walk and to be physically distanced from others. I have talked to people in highly populated cities around the country who are experiencing this same concern. If you have the ability to go outside and take a walk or to go on a bike ride – lucky you. If you don’t feel comfortable with being outside yet because where you live is so populated, check out online exercise classes, or Zoom with your personal trainer, or buy a stationary bike or treadmill to have in your home.
A little exercise goes a long way in restoring mental, emotional, and physical health. Standing, by the way, is considered an activity, so if you are remote working at home, invest in a stand-up desk that you can spend some hours in your day upright instead of sitting for hours on end.
You probably already know that meditation is good for you but may feel resistant to the idea of practicing. Meditation is presence-awareness training, not so much about creating a blank mind, so the good news is that meditation is hard to do wrong. At Hilton Head Health, I teach an introduction to a meditation class and the top reason people choose not to mediate or soon quit after trying is that they become frustrated with not being able to quiet their mind. Welcome to the club. Mind chatter is normal, especially if new to meditation, or if we are under a lot of stress. Um – like right now.
The good news is that a little meditation goes a long way in helping us to better manage stress and to feel more centered and calmer. If you are new to meditation, I recommend trying guided meditation so that you can follow another voice instead of your own thoughts. My favorite free meditation app is Insight Timer because of its anxiety and stress management meditations as well as for its sleep aid meditations. I recommend starting with around 10 minutes and experiment with different meditation teachers to see what type of voice, cadence, etc. helps you to relax. Two of my favorite teachers available on this app are Tara Brach (lightly guided) and Sarah Blondin (heavily guided). Give meditation a try, the calming effects of just ten minutes per day are noticeable.
The next time a food thought occurs, and you know it’s due to stress or habit, try one of these strategies first. Learning to press the pause button first allows for the practice of going off auto-pilot with food choices, and will enable you to tune into what you truly need at the moment.