Is stress eating real?

You've heard and experienced the term "stress eating." But is it factual? Or an excuse was given to indulge in unplanned gluttony?

The answer requires a short dip into the biochemical process that is your body.
In the short-term, when stressed, the stress response curbs appetite. Why?

Because getting out of the stressful scenario is immediately relevant. You've seen this in action when you are working on an important project and have skipped a meal.

But the issue in modern life is that the stress does not go away, many a time.

From Harvard Health,

But if stress persists, it's a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated.

Increased appetite and increased motivation to eat. That's the end result.

Why do we stress eat?

To combat our stress, you crave that will make you feel better. You eat foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. Foods that are engineered to hit your brain with "Yaaaaaaay!" signals i.e. dampen the stress response.

Young man covered in sticky notes, work overload
Photo by Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

You do this for the short-term but tomorrow, you need to hit it again. And the day after that. And the day after that.

That's how stress eating occurs.

Because the underlying cause is deeper and unresolved, it is not a question of willpower. But of biology. The best method to get out of stress eating is not to work on the eating component but on the stress component.

My current scenario

The past 8 weeks have been higher than usual on my stress scale. I am in the middle of a new app launch for the Daily9, a complete revamp of the application and a big change in how the programme is designed. While I prepared for this stressor, the consistent delay (5 months late) coupled with unexpected bugs led to my stress cup overflowing.

All this is besides my regular workload. Which has a different stressful component. I am finding it difficult to get out of working on Quadrant-1 tasks, and move into working on Quadrant-2 tasks. Note: from the Eisenhower matrix, Q1 tasks are Urgent and Important while Q2 tasks are Not Urgent and Important.

Understanding my stressors

For me to solve my stress problem, I need to understand them better.
The D9 app launch is a short-term stressor. Once the app is launched and the bugs are resolved, it will get over. What I have learned from this experience is:

  • have a weekly project review.
  • do not accept that all development projects will be delayed. As humorous as the the following quote is.
The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.

-- Tom Cargill, Bell Labs
  • make peace with the fact that there will be unforeseen problems
  • stay calm throughout the experience. Being calmer allows me to solve problems better. Being agitated delays the solution.
  • reach out to experts earlier, even if it seems unnecessary.

And the other stressor which is persistent, working on Quadrant-1 tasks rather than Quadrant-2. Here's what I am thinking:

  • First, I need to acknowledge that this is not going to be resolved in the next few weeks.
  • I need to have more self-compassion. I am working hard and there are a lot of things at play at The Quad.
  • I need to stay calm and draft a medium-term and long-term plan for how I am going to achieve this transition. I find planning rather hard (more on this in a few weeks) and I should seek outside help.
  • I need to begin with the end in mind. Rather than yelling "I need to work only on Quadrant-2 tasks", I need to understand what that means.
  • Continue with my breathing, meditation, and me-time.
  • Stay patient. Understand the effort required. Track the effort.

What's next?

Understanding my stressors, acknowledging them, and acknowledging my pain/difficulty is the crucial first step for me. These are not things I have ever done before.

Then, I need to work on the plan. A lot of the stuff I've said is abstract i.e. they need specifics to be laid out. But the skeleton is there. I've picked a direction. I need to walk down there and it will get clearer.

a blender made iceberg.
Photo by SIMON LEE / Unsplash

I need to keep an eye on my stress eating. Rather than get angry at the stress of eating, I need to use it as an opportunity. To acknowledge that things are getting hard. Use it as a flag, rather than as a whip. The flag lets me know that something's up.

The point of using me as an example is not to speak about myself. But to walk you through what is a potential solution. I don't know if this is the right solution for you. Heck, I don't know if it is the right solution for me. But I do know that most solutions appear when I start moving in the right direction.

Next time you find yourself stress-eating, here's my suggestion:

  • focus on identifying the stressor.
  • acknowledge the stress. acknowledge yourself.
  • treat yourself with self-compassion.
  • have a plan for dealing with the stress.
  • give yourself time.