Stress Eating

A client whom I worked with a few years ago recently had her second baby and was having trouble getting her eating back under control. Lara told me that during her pregnancy, she let herself eat whatever she wanted and ended up gaining more weight than was healthy. Now at six months postpartum, she’s still struggling to put the skills that we had worked on back in place. When Lara and I met this week, she told me that one of the hardest things has been dealing with stress and anxiety without turning to food. Her husband works long hours and she’s often solo parenting her three-year-old and six-month-old.

Lara told me that she’s often aware that she’s eating because she’s tired or because she’s stressed, but hasn’t been able to combat it. I first reminded Lara that it is no surprise that she’s tired and stressed!  It’s reasonable to feel that way given her situation. I then reminded her that the good news is that when she’s tired and stressed, her body isn’t telling her, “I need food,” because she’s not actually hungry.  It is telling her, “I need relief!” and food is not the only way to find that relief.

Lara and I also discussed the fact that while food helps temporarily, when she’s stressed it only momentarily distracts her from the stress. In fact, it later leaves her with more stress: the initial stress and now the additional stress of worrying about her weight. And when she’s tired, eating does momentarily spike her blood sugar, but then she often experiences a crash afterwards and feels even more tired. So, across the board, eating is just not helping. Lara made the following Response Cards to help her remember these ideas:

“Either way I’m tired. I can be overweight and tired or just tired. When I’m tired I crave sweets, which helps in the moment. But then I get a sugar crash and actually feel even more tired. So it makes the situation worse on all accounts.”

“When I’m stressed and I turn to food, I just wind up more stressed! I always, always am mad at myself for overeating and the stress just increases. It’s not helping!”

Lara and I then made a list of things she could try the next time she feels tired or stressed to help her get through without eating.

Getting Through StrategiesStress Eating

  • Go for a walk
  • Meditation (using an app)
  • Listen to music – create a relaxing playlist
  • Drink water
  • Drink tea
  • Write down one memory about my kids
  • Take a nap for whatever length of time I have
  • Look through pictures/delete pictures on phone that aren’t worth saving
  • Short yoga routine

Lara told me that while she thinks these things might help, sometimes she struggles with the idea that she needs to be productive all the time and can’t take time for herself, especially when she has so much to do. Lara and I discussed the fact that not taking time for herself leads her to emotionally eat because eating is the only outlet she’s giving herself. Continuing to eat in response to feeling tired and stressed is ultimately going to make her unhealthy, and she has too many people relying on her not to be healthy. Lara made one final Response Card:

“I have too much to do and too many people are relying on me to not take care of myself. This is only 10 minutes. It’s a necessity, not a luxury.”

7 replies
  1. Kardelen
    Kardelen says:

    This is such a nice piece. I have so many clients exactly the same way. Unfortunately the toughest thing is, in my experience, actually leading the clients into the behavioral change. Some clients are actually really persistent in the way that they don’t want to try anything else but yet still are unhappy with weight problems.

  2. Sue
    Sue says:

    Wow! I loved the statement “My body needs relief, not food”!
    I can also relate to Lara’s feeling that she needs to be productive all the time even though I realize the benefits of “me time”. This has given me the idea to start my own list of “feel good” activities that I can use in place of food.

  3. Maryann Flynn
    Maryann Flynn says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Judith Beck’s book on CBT. I am still looking for someone who conducts sessions like that.
    I was waiting for someone to apply CBT concepts to eating problems. Now here it is. I see myself as an emotional eater and particular situations when I am tired or anxious. Food comforts me although later I am mad that I don’t have the willpower st this time. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s always helps.
    I am buying the book and workbook and look forward to learning lifelong ways of managing my emotions.

  4. Oolala
    Oolala says:

    I love the questioning of the stress-eat stimulus/response, but as far as the alternatives, ‘m puzzled. A mom of two won’t be able to take a walk or nap when she feels at the breaking point. Isn’t she going to have to use delay tactics just to get to a time when she can? Isn’t she also going to have to question her assumptions about what is stressing her? When I was working on stress eating over work, it became essential that I deal with my thinking about work and I actually had to accept that many of my expectations would not be met. Meditation and relaxing strategies outside of work hardly made a dent in the experiences at work, when I desperately wanted to eat, and when I couldn’t nap, walk, listen to music, or do other relaxing activities. I did get past the habit, but by using strategies in the moment, similar to the coping ones in the conversation above. I was less motivated by fear of weight gain that of going back to the lifestyle of compulsive eating that made me even more miserable physically and mentally.


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