STRATEGY 1 PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION
Self-compassion is an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself. Lots of people who deal with stress eating have negative self-talk running through their heads before, during, and afterward.
Some of this might sound familiar:
“I guess I’m going to hit up my snack stash again now, like I always do. Why can’t I ever learn?”
“Ugh, I’m such an idiot for doing this. Again.”
“I just had to finish the ice cream, didn’t I? Nice work, me.”
As a result, the cycle of negative self-talk, stress eating, and feeling bad about it can become a never-ending loop.”
Self-compassion is a tool that can help interrupt that cycle by reducing the “screw it” feeling that happens right before a person starts emotional eating.
A key distinction here is that self-compassion isn’t an excuse to stress eat. Its purpose is to help remove some of the guilt you might feel about stress eating. That’s important, since that guilt can just lead to more overeating. So give it a try. Even if it feels a little squishy at first, it might just be the thing that works.
Self-compassion is giving yourself a break. It is NOT giving yourself a permanent get out of jail free card.
Self-compassion is being honest and seeing the big picture. It is NOT ignoring your problems.
Self-compassion is being kind to yourself. It is NOT letting yourself off the hook
STRATEGY 2 - IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGERS
Next time you get the urge to stress eat, treat it as an experiment. Use our BEHAVIOR AWARENESS WORKSHEET to document what happens and how you feel before, during, and after.
Get in the habit of checking in yourself in order to identify and name what is actually going on even if you aren't ready to change the behavior. Before moving ahead with stress eating, notice links between specific thoughts / feelings / situations and behaviors.
Ask yourself if you are hungry, angry, anxious, lonely, tired, stressed or sad. This will help you better understand and identify your triggers but it'll also start removing—or at least, lessening—any guilt or shame you feel around overeating.
Plus, if you’re “allowed” to overeat, it suddenly doesn’t feel as urgent. When it’s no longer forbidden, the intense craving for a whole box of cookies sometimes turns into a more manageable desire for just one or two.
So try to observe your experience as neutrally as possible. Simply notice, observe, and record what happens leading up to any food cravings, emotional eating, overeating, and/or any other times that feel “out of control” with food and eating.
Because here’s a secret:
Those feelings and behaviors didn’t come out of nowhere. They aren’t random. Something led to them.
After a few episodes and keeping data you might notice some patterns.
Maybe you notice you head for the snack cupboard right after getting off a stressful, two-hour-long conference call. And you realize you’ve been doing that almost every day for… weeks.
Once you’re aware of the trigger, decide what to do about it. If it’s something you can avoid, great. (If the smell of baking cookies is too much for you to handle, you could take a break from baking for a while.) If your trigger isn’t something you can change or avoid, sometimes just being aware that you’re experiencing a trigger can help.
It’s possible you’ll have to do this experiment a few times before the trigger(s) becomes obvious. That’s okay. If this happens, do your best not to obsess about the decision to eat or not eat. Instead, try to focus on learning more about your own behavior, and keep your worksheet notes handy so you can add to them as needed.
STRATEGY 3: DISCOMFORT DEAL
Once you've collected enough data and have identified your triggers the next step is changing your behavior. If you aren't ready to change your coping behavior just yet, start with a simple "discomfort deal".
When you feel the urge to eat emotionally, take 5 minutes to sit with that urge. Set a timer. During this time, simply notice what you are thinking or feeling, whatever comes to mind. Notice that you feel uncomfortable, but it's ok. After 5 minutes, you can make any choice that feels right.
Over this period of time you'll learn to tolerate the discomfort of not eating to soothe yourself. It will also increase your faith in yourself and your ability to self-regulate.
STRATEGY 4: CREATE A NOURISHMENT MENU.
Once you are ready to work on changing your behavior let's pick a thing before the thing and disrupt the cycle.
Pick an action (a thing) that you’ll always do before you engage in stress eating (the other thing). Ideally, it’s multiple actions—like a “menu” of choices for yourself. These actions disrupt the trigger/behavior cycle. But there’s more to it than that.
It's called the nourishment menu because we’re deprived of so many things that nourish us on so many different levels right now like as much fresh air as we want, social interaction, free movement.
Food is an easy way to fill some of these voids we’re feeling, that’s why it’s important to have ideas of things that can nourish you in other ways.
For example, before deciding to eat you could:
Take three deep breaths
Drink a big glass of water
Mentally check for signs of physical hunger
Play with your pet for five minutes
Do some quick stretches
Listen to a favorite song or a few minutes of a podcast
Go for a short walk
Spend a few minutes on housework (like folding your clothes or organizing your desk)
The most effective nourishment menus include actions that line up with your goals, values and priorities "THE BIG ROCKS". They’ll be more likely to offer the same feeling of relief you were hoping—consciously or not—to get from food.
For example, if you deeply value your close friendships, calling or texting a friend could be one of your menu options.
NOT ALL FEEL-GOOD HABITS ARE CREATED EQUAL IN TERMS OF THEIR PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECT ON THE STRESS RESPONSE.
According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress relievers are:
exercising / playing sports,
listening to music,
praying / attending a religious service,
spending time with friends / family,
getting a massage,
engaging in a creative hobby.
The least effective stress relievers are:
playing video games,
surfing the internet,
and watching TV / movies for more than two hours.
Although we may use the second list as “stress-relievers”—because they feel so good in the short term—they don’t actually reduce stress effectively.
HOW TO TRY IT
You might be thinking, ‘Sure, that sounds nice… but I won’t actually do it.’
And it’s true: The trick with the nourishment menu is that you actually have to use it.
Here are three ideas that might help.
1. MAKE IT AS EASY AS POSSIBLE ON YOURSELF.
Ensure the items on your nourishment menu feel doable and reasonable. At maximum, they should take you 15 minutes to complete. For instance, a quick journaling session could qualify. Ideally, you want to have one or two options that’ll take a minute or less. Like writing down three emotions you’re feeling in the moment (this emotion word wheel might spark some ideas), or giving your partner a hug.
You’ll also want to keep any materials you’ll need handy. If drinking a glass of water before eating is on your menu, always keep it at your desk (or wherever you are). If you’re supposed to write something down before you head for the pantry, keep a notepad and pen on your kitchen counter.
If you want to eat a serving of vegetables before having any other type of snack, keep washed, cut-up options at eye-level in your fridge. (Learn more smart strategies for setting up your kitchen.)
2. PUT YOUR NOURISHMENT MENU SOMEWHERE VISIBLE.
Post it on your fridge, kitchen cabinet, or anywhere else you’re likely to see it before eating. You’re less likely to ignore it if you can see it. And if you ignore it occasionally, it’s not such a big deal. The key is to get a little bit better over time, not be perfect. So if you use the nourishment menu once every third time you want to stress eat, you’re still making progress. For the record, just doing one action from the menu is often enough to break the cycle. You don’t always have to work your way through the whole list. But it’s good to have multiple actions to choose from for variety.
And if you try a couple actions and still want to eat? That’ll happen. But remember: You’ve already done some really good things for yourself in the process. So go ahead and have that snack but treat it like a meal. Portion out the amount you want to eat in a bowl or on a plate, sit down at a table without distractions, and enjoy it slowly and mindfully.
3. KEEP TRACK OF HOW OFTEN YOU USE YOUR NOURISHMENT MENU.
Plus, record what happens when you do (on your phone or a Post-It note).
Let’s say over the course of a day, you get the urge to snack four times.
Twice, you use your nourishment menu and avoid eating.
Once, you use the nourishment menu and end up eating something slowly and mindfully.
Another time, you skip the menu altogether and end up overeating.
Why do this? At the end of the day, you can look back and see which actions helped you stop the stress eating cycle. Then, you can start proactively taking those actions regularly throughout your day. This is how you make progress.
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