This week, I was talking with a client about an upcoming stressor that is looming in her life (temporarily caregiving for a family member). She mentioned that she wanted to safeguard against spending the entire time eating chocolate, and was looking for healthy ways to de-stress.
I immediately pointed out that there are worse ways to manage stress!
When it comes to food, we often view it in black-and-white terms.
Using food to manage stress = bad
Not using food in any way to manage stress = good
… Do you relate?
As I discussed with this client, there is certainly a spectrum of how good or how bad the effect of a behavior really is. There are worse coping mechanisms than chocolate!
But the fear makes sense to me. If you’ve made significant improvements to your relationship with food, the last thing you want to do is make yourself vulnerable to falling back into bad habits.
But can I give you a piece of advice? A little bit of perspective? And some tips and tricks?
Let’s change how we look at using food for stress management, by talking about healthy ways to de-stress!
Most of the time, I see clients respond to chronic stress, not acute stress. For example, typically a client is stress-eating because of a low-level, ongoing stress like the strain of caring for children or aging parents, or the pressures of a difficult boss … not because of the death of a family member or the sudden loss of a job.
I see clients underrate the cumulative intensity of this kind of stress because they (rightfully) recognize that it’s part of life. “Who am I to complain? I’m thankful for my kids and my job. I’m lucky to be in a position to care for someone else,” they often think to themselves.
Since having Gabriella, I can’t even describe how much I relate to this! When you get used to being “on” 24/7, it is truly hard to step back and see how fried you may be.
It’s great to reframe and to practice gratitude. But the stress management problem happens when you do not acknowledge to yourself that the situation is stressful and will be ongoing, and that you need to plan in breaks for yourself so that you can keep it all together.
If you don’t provide yourself with adequate rest and mental/temporal/physical breaks from work and care, that stress is going to come out somewhere… like random, repetitive overeating or drinking too much.
You might not end up elbows deep in the gallon of ice cream (more on that in a moment), but you may find yourself continually shooting your health goals in the foot by repeatedly treating yourself to small indulgences.
So the first change in perspective is not to worry so much about the food or weight side of the picture. Look first to the stressor itself, and how you can plan in breaks to rest and recharge.
My first tip can be summarized as: “Acknowledge that you are stressed and that you need to de-stress.”
Next, let’s talk about what these “breaks” actually look like.
My clients are productive people. Whether they work at home, a hospital, or a university, my typical client tends to be the kind of person who values hard work and accomplishment.
This is great (and I relate). But the dark side of a high-achieving personality is that anything that is not productive is not seen as relaxing… it’s seen as lazy.
The end result is that people delay the break until they can do something that is a formal activity – like exercising or doing a spa treatment – and it either never happens, or is a day late and a dollar short. The goal is not to do something really nice for yourself every once in awhile – it’s about creating small practices that can keep you balanced every single day.
So let’s talk about “lazy” things you can do for just 10 minutes on any day, wearing any clothes, that would be extremely productive from the point of view of recharging your energy and giving your brain some blank space:
- Taking a nap
- Reading an interesting/fun/funny book
- Playing a game on your phone
- Standing, stretching, and walking around
- Watching stupid TV
- Listening to an entertaining podcast
If you’re at work, you’re probably not going to take a nap, but you could find the privacy (even in a bathroom stall) to stretch or just space out for 10 minutes and breathe.
The following activities are less stereotypically “lazy,” but are also very healthy ways to de-stress:
- Taking a walk
- Following along with a 10-minute yoga, meditation, or Tai Chi / Qigong routine on YouTube
- Doing a less-than-10-minute workout (I make these for my clients all the time, which can be done at home or at work, in any clothes)
My second tip can be summarized as: “Develop a repertoire/menu of de-stressing activities that can be done practically anytime, anywhere.”
Remembering the Body
While it sounds incredibly simple, it is important to remember that taste is only one of the five senses.
What I mean is that we can become so consumed with activity that we forget that our bodies are capable of being sensorially aware without the sensory act of eating.
Think of it like having white noise on. The dull roar of the white noise blurs out our perception of sound, and it takes a loud, piercing noise to cut through and make an impression.
Stress (or busy-ness) is like the white noise – it creates a wall of distraction that desensitizes us to small, simple sensory input and pleasures. Then, the only kind of input that can make an impression is something that is extremely attention-grabbing, like a delicious (and usually overly-rich) food or drink.
In other words, taste is one of the fastest shortcuts to connecting with our senses and de-stressing.
But the reality is that there are other physical practices that can also sensorially break through the white noise of busy-ness. Food isn’t the only option.
Healthy ways to de-stress take advantage of our body’s many senses! Here are some ideas:
- Movement, or even taking a bath or shower, helps you connect to touch.
- Putting on lotion or perfume can help you activate your sense of smell.
- Editing your favorite pictures on your phone can give pleasure to your sense of sight.
- Listening to a favorite piece of music can enliven your hearing.
Many activities, like taking a walk, can connect you to multiple senses – sight, smell, touch, and more.
Finally, beyond the physical body, there’s also the emotional self. I have written a blog post about “Replacing Comfort Food with Real Comfort.” Check it out for ideas!
My third tip could be summarized as: “Find new ways to connect with yourself through your senses and activities other than taste or eating.”
Breaking Down Food Behaviors
Finally, let’s take a good look at the food behavior itself.
How do you define a negative eating behavior?
This topic is incredibly multi-faceted. I’ve written a blog post about it before, called “The Difference Between Overeating and Binge Eating.” I wrote it because I realized some of my clients were using the word “binging” when it didn’t apply.
But you don’t have to truly binge for a food behavior to be maladaptive. “Stress eating” can manifest differently for different people (and at different times in life), and all you have to ask yourself is:
“Is this an eating behavior that is not helpful to me?”
You may realize that yes, you are actually binging and that you may need additional help with resolving this behavior. I recommend seeking out the help of a registered dietitian and/or counselor.
But the flip side is also important to remember: using food to de-stress isn’t always a bad thing. Taste is one of the five senses, after all. When it comes to engaging the senses, what is more simple, pleasurable, or approachable than making a beautiful, fragrant latte with a design on top?
But it’s possible that food simply plays too large a role in your self-soothing repertoire, and that small indulgences keep adding up. Maybe they’re adding up to obstacles that hold you back from achieving the weight loss goals that you want, or maybe you keep eating foods that aren’t good for a particular health condition. Unwanted snacking may not be the same thing as binging (both physically and psychologically), but it may be a way of relieving stress that is ultimately not positive.
Here are some tips that could help:
- Take a look at your food environment. What foods do you keep in your house that you are repeatedly overeating or over-snacking on? It may solve the problem simply to remove the food for the time being.
- Identify triggers. Do you typically over-snack when you are stressed? Bored? Tired? Make a game plan (using some of the suggestions in this blog post) to respond to this trigger the next time it comes up.
- Do you need to create some replacement foods? Sometimes, the food behavior isn’t unnecessarily unhealthy, but it would be helpful for a person to shift some calories (or a specific ingredient, like diary) out of their diet. Experiment with replacing your typical snacks or meals with a lower-calorie or a special-diet replacement (like a sugar-free cola or dairy-free treats).
It can be helpful to be this specific because I often see my clients become overly-perfectionistic in their approach to improving their eating. Instead of changing a specific habit or behavior, they take a sweeping approach to (1) removing anything even possibly “bad” from their diet or (2) ever using food to reduce stress. This is an exercise in futility, because what typically happens is a compensating swing in the other direction at some point.
My last tip, then, could be summarized as: “Identify exactly what is problematic about the eating behavior and take steps to solve that problem exactly – no more, no less.”
Creating an Effective Plan for Healthy Ways to De-Stress
(1) Acknowledge the sources of stress in your life, and identify the fact that you need breaks for rest and renewal every day. You don’t get to cram a week of needed rest into a one-hour massage when you can finally get around to it.
(2) Plan laziness every day. Don’t feel guilty about it. Take 10 minutes (at least!) once a day to sit around and do nothing. You can meditate, take a shower, watch silly TV, or just sit there. You don’t have to be productive!
(3) Create small pleasures that engage senses other than taste. Taste (i.e. eating and drinking) is often a shortcut to relaxation and pleasure. Get more creative!
(4) Create an action plan for what behaviors you actually want to change. Notice what triggers play a role, and use the above tips to have a backup plan for the next time the situation comes up.