Virginia is a forty-two-year-old woman and the owner of a large business which is very stressful. On top of that, she also caretakes her elderly parents. She is married with two children in college and feels that her life is pretty good overall, with one exception—she struggles with food obsessions and body dissatisfaction. Every time something goes wrong at work, she finds herself bingeing on junk food.
If you struggle with food addiction, binge or emotional eating, Virginia’s case above illustrates how recurrent acute and chronic stress can sabotage any efforts you make to resolve your food and body image issues. Managing stress without food requires that you learn a new set of skills to use when you’re feeling overwhelmed, worn out, or stressed to the max. Managing stress also requires learning to tap into your body’s wisdom to identify the early warning signs and symptoms of stress, a key first step toward handling stress differently. Stress management involves a moment-by-moment mindful awareness that you may not naturally possess but that you can learn.
What is stress?
Stress can be difficult to define because it has so many causes and is different for different people. But you know what stress feels like, and you also have probably experienced how stress can wear you down—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. During the COVID-19 pandemic, new stressors such as longer work hours, more demands at home and fear of or losses from COVID – have led to higher rates of burnout for many people.
In a recent survey close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32% increase from two decades ago. What’s more, there is also a high association between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: the more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. Loneliness is also associated with higher risks for physical and mental health issues: high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, stroke and suicide. Research shows that loneliness reduces your lifespan by 70%.
Eating, Stress and Loneliness
Often food serves the purpose of self-soothing and providing comfort during stressful times. Overeating can increases due to loneliness and burnout. Food has been described by individuals with binge eating, food obsessions and emotional eating as "my best friend." Food is often used to numb feelings, including the feeling of loneliness. We also turn to food for nurturing ourselves when we feel lonely.
Addressing stress and loneliness without using food
One of the ways to manage stress and loneliness is by building resilience. Resilience is sour ability to bounce back from difficult or challenging situations. Many people are naturally very resilient. But resilience can also be learned. Like building a muscle, resilience takes time and practice. Here are some ways to become more resilient:
- Learn to relax -this is not popular with many people with emotional eating, food addiction or binge eating because they always feel they have to prove themselves so often they may push themselves beyond normal levels of fatigue into burnout. How well you are able to relax is a measure of your self-compassion. If you practice relaxing, you may be surprised to find that you become more resilient over time.
- Use or grow your support network: having people you can turn to when you're struggling is one of the best ways to build resilience. If you don't have a good network, work on expanding your network.
- Pay attention to your thoughts: For many people struggling with food and body image issues, they subject themselves to a constant stream of negative self-talk. You may not realize that this negative self-talk actually reduces your ability to care for yourself and to handle stress. Just interrupting these negative thoughts will enable you to build resilience.
- Stay fit in body and mind: If your body is fit, you are less likely to get colds or flu and you will be more able to handle stress. Stress affects your body just as much as it affects your mental well-being. Eating well, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and moving your body are all ways to build resilience.
- Learn from your past: If you look back on lessons you've learned during other difficult circumstances, you may be able to apply those lessons to your current stressors. Past experiences may also point to ways you found strength that can be used for current challenges.
If you find yourself overwhelmed and discouraged, you should also consider getting professional help. It's also important to learn to let go of what is not working for you and accept where you are today. That doesn't mean you are where you want to be, but constantly thinking about what should have been or what you don't have, try to focus on what is working in your life and what meaning you can take from your challenges.
Addressing sources of stress head on can enable you to stop turning to food for comfort. Here is some homework to help you gain insight into what role food is playing for you.
- Ask yourself what is missing for you in your next stressful moment? Do you need a way to comfort yourself, do you need a hug or someone to listen to you and acknowledge your pain?
- Journal about the purpose food serves for you when you are under stress or lonely.
- Use that information to strategize new ways to meet those needs.
All the best,
PS: If you are ready to access expert help to make peace with food and your body and get off the diet treadmill, schedule a free consult