Why You Overeat When Stressed
Why you overeat when work cranks up the pressure. And what to do about it.
High pressure, high importance roles bring with them times where the pressure is cranked to ten. Long hours, high stakes and high cognitive load result in high stress.
An all too common pattern when this occurs, is overeating as a coping strategy. This is totally understandable, although counterproductive and undesirable.
Breaking this cycle requires understanding about the true nature of the problem. It is not to do with a weak willpower or lack of discipline. It is really nothing to do with the pleasure or hedonism that the sugar, or alcohol is going to give you.
These coping behaviours are about the feeling that you’re trying to mitigate, dull down, avoid, or disconnect from. It is not about the inherent pleasure that the food itself might provide.
Overeating in this situation is a coping mechanism.
In the moment, you feel stressed. You feel like the week has really gotten on top of you, you’re exhausted. Your brain seeks something to ease your suffering. It’s not that the food or drink is some sort of inherent reward that is going to make you feel great. Rather, that you feel awful, and the food or drink numbs that. Whats more, the result is often weight gain, deleterious impact on health, frustration and even shame, guilt and self criticism. None of which are helpful, I am sure you will agree.
The most common solution defaulted to, by those experiencing this pattern, is will power. Which is a terrible strategy. Not least because it is precisely the time that your limited will power is most drained. But more importantly, when it is most needed elsewhere. This strategy is doomed to fail for myriad reasons. Trying to tackle the mindless eating and drinking is to focus on a downstream problem. A more efficacious path, is to tackle the upstream one.
It is incredible how much stress a person can take with adequate respite. Our stress systems are well adapted to deal with intermittent stressors. But poorly adapted to deal with chronic stressors.
The most productive thing you can do when faced with extreme challenges is to think. To think clearly you need respite from the stress.
To achieve respite, make physical and mental space from the stressors. Delay decisions if possible until you’re in a calm state. Take five minutes and use a meditation app like calm or headspace. Take a walk, ideally outside in nature, disconnected from technology. Even book a spa day to really create room to think.
You’re only as good as your ability to recover. Insights from HRV studies show that certain activities boost HRV and PNS tone very powerfully. (Meaning they reduce the impact of stress on the body and actively help you recover). This is known as recovery activity. The specific activity that produces this recovery effect can be highly individual. Some seemingly universally effective practices are meditation, breathing exercises, time in nature, making love and sleep. But you may find playing the piano, reading or even rock climbing to do it for you.
Respite is the first step. But actively engaging in recovery activities will bolster you even more.
Overcome your resistance:
When overwhelmed, under fire and under pressure, it is often difficult to carve time out for respite and recovery. It may feel like you’re hiding or running from the problem. It may feel lazy or counterproductive to step back and take time for yourself.
In reality, quality of being determines quality of doing.
Quell your stress response to think more clearly. Reduce reactivity through respite to decide more thoughtfully and less emotionally. Reduce fear and threat perception and see the bigger picture as a result. Don’t swing a blunt axe. Providing yourself with this respite will remove the driver behind why you overeat.
When work is tough you will inevitably use coping mechanisms to get through. This might be the underlying reason behind why you overeat when stressed. This results in weight gain and ill health, but not less stress. Tackle the real problem, the stress. Do this by carving out time and space for respite and recovery. It may feel hard to justify, but think of it as sharpening the axe.
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