How to Manage Stress Eating — or Not Eating at All — in Uncertain Times
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
This story is part of How to Eat in the New Normal, a weeklong series about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat, with expert advice for making food choices that help you stay healthy and happy.
Emotions are running high these days, and that can lead to all sorts of negative habits, especially around food. Are you eating more than usual? Or maybe you’re so worried that you’re forgetting to eat? Stress impacts our appetite in major ways, but there is a simple approach you can adopt to identify and change these behaviors so you can stay healthy and feel less anxious while living through these uncertain times.
When it comes to food, anxiety can impact many of us in one of two ways: We don’t eat or we eat too much. Not eating often falls into two categories: not eating because we’ve lost our appetite due to stress and worry, or simply forgetting to eat because we’re too busy juggling everything else.
Losing our appetite is actually an adaptive survival mechanism. Our ancient ancestors who were out on the savannah in the midst of danger had to be ready to fight or run at a moment’s notice. When our fight-or-flight mode is engaged, it signals to our bodies that this is no time to sit down and have a nice meal, and diverts blood from our digestive tract into our muscles. With that redistribution of blood, we’re equipped to do what we need to survive, so that we’re alive in the future to have another meal.
Forgetting to eat can also be the result of our stress response. We’re so focused on what we’re doing or stressed about what we have to do, that we forget to eat or don’t give ourselves a break to get some food. When we’re stressed, our thinking brain isn’t working well, and we don’t see that taking five minutes to eat something is actually going to help us function now, and keep our energy levels stable later.
When we see really clearly that a behavior isn’t rewarding, we become disenchanted with doing it in the future.
I’m guessing most of us can relate. Now, let’s talk about eating too much.
Because food can trigger dopamine release in your brain, it is pretty easy to get in the habit of eating as a coping mechanism for high levels of stress or anxiety. Feel bad, eat something, feel better. Trigger, behavior, reward — these are the three steps that create a habit through our brain’s built-in reward-based learning system.
I have a patient who was referred to me for help with his generalized anxiety disorder. On his first visit, we mapped out some of his anxiety habit loops. When he’d drive on the highway, he would have fearful thoughts of getting in a car accident. Those thoughts would trigger the behavior of opting not to drive on the highway. His reward was avoiding those unpleasant thoughts — but at the cost of no longer being able to drive on the highway, severely restricting his ability to go places.
Now that he understood the trigger, behavior, reward structure of habits, I asked him to map out more of his anxiety habit loops. At our next appointment, two weeks later, he excitedly told me that he had lost 14 pounds. I was confused at first — while he was very overweight, we had planned to focus on his anxiety and after that, address his overeating. He explained that he mapped out his anxiety habit loops and realized that anxiety would trigger stress eating. He could now clearly see that stress eating only temporarily distracted him from the anxiety, and, in fact, added to his worries because his obesity was causing health problems like high blood pressure. So he stopped stress eating because he realized it wasn’t helping his anxiety at all, and was actually making it worse.
This is a great example of what my lab has been studying: using awareness to help people map out their habit loops around smoking, anxiety, and overeating — and using that same awareness to help them hack their brain’s reward system. When we see really clearly that a behavior isn’t rewarding, we become disenchanted with doing it in the future. We can’t think our way into changing a habit because that relies on the thinking part of our brain, which ironically goes offline when we’re hungry or stressed. But we can rely on our old, survival brain because it functions on a much simpler level. It determines: Does this behavior feel good or not?
If you are noticing that you’re drawn to the refrigerator because of emotions like sadness, frustration, boredom, or stress, see if you can try two simple steps today. First, map out your eating habit loops. What’s the trigger? What is the behavior? Are you stress eating or overeating? What’s the reward? Second, go ahead and eat, but pay attention as you do. Zoom in on that reward piece. Keep paying attention. How pleasurable is eating that food? If it feels good, does the pleasure start to drop as you eat more? Can you tap into your brain’s reward system to stop when you’re full?
We can’t think our way into changing a habit, because that relies on the thinking part of our brain, which ironically goes offline when we’re hungry or stressed.
Remember the patient I told you about earlier? I’ve been treating him for about six months now. He’s lost close to a hundred pounds, and his blood pressure has gone back to normal. And no kidding, not only can he drive on the highway, he’s now an Uber driver — all thanks to awareness.
I’ll end with a page from the book I’ve been sharing little snippets from in these columns. It is called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse. But today I’m going to issue a caveat warning. The mole is demonstrating how stress eating habits get established.
“Do you have a favorite saying?” asked the boy.
“Yes,” said the mole.
“What is it?”
“If at first you don’t succeed, have some cake.”
“I see, does it work?” asked the boy
See if you can identify and close down any unhealthy eating habits you might be developing or reinforcing today. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with awareness.
Onward, together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.