Making changes is hard at the best of times. It’s even harder when life is stressful.
Stress can change your eating habits. Some people eat more and some eat less.
In both cases, a new set of diet rules does not engage with real life.
When stress occurs, the diet rules come apart and old habits set in immediately.
A new belief is reinforced.
“I need to suffer in a way I am used to suffering if I’m to feel that nutrition is working.”
The cycle worsens. Strict rules -> Failure and chaos -> More strict rules -> Failure and chaos.
Self-sabotage is a term you hear thrown around a lot, but understanding what people mean is tricky—partly because many people don’t really know what it means.
It’s often used by some to judge others, or by charlatans to sound smart so they can sell you a solution.
Here’s the most useful definition I have found.
Self-sabotage is when you frequently undermine your goals and values.
How does this tie in with stress eating?
Eating is complex. My typical client has tried umpteen diets hoping the next one sticks.
Diets are harmful because they are somewhat effective in one narrow domain- weight loss.
Like a car with no brakes—sometimes it does exactly what it promised.
The issue arises when their strict nature doesn’t allow for flexibility, just as a car with no brakes doesn’t allow for detours or red lights.
Crash, bang, wallop, deflated self-esteem.
Stress eating feels like self-sabotage because it temporarily distracts you from pain and anxiety. In the long run, it sabotages values like nourishment, being fit and active and weight management. It also strips the joy from food.
Self-sabotaging behaviour can either be
- Unconscious: doing something that undermines your values and not realising it until afterwards.
- Conscious: when you are aware you are undermining your values but you convince yourself in the moment you don’t care. Maybe you think you don’t deserve better.
There is no simple solution to self-sabotage.
Everyone exhibits self-sabotaging behaviour every now and then. Some have worse consequences than others. Behind self-sabotaging behaviours is a need trying to be met.
Stress is common in the modern world.
You might have young kids, a big impending work deadline or just feel anxious whilst trying to maintain a household, an active lifestyle and a positive body image. It can feel overwhelming.
An easy default is food—especially fast, tasty and comforting food. Especially if you have been trying strict diets for years, convincing yourself that this is your last dance with a certain food(s).
When life is smooth, perfection is impossible.
When life gets stressful, it’s a catastrophe.
Perfectionism is the practice of quitting when a challenges arises. It’s a refusal to accept your humanity.
To make a strict diet work, you need a stress-free life.
There is no universe in which something you hadn’t planned for won’t happen. Think of sick children or a friend’s wedding.
If it’s not obvious by now, life happens. Diets are doomed before they start.
Anticipate where you are going to meet stress so that you can begin to respond.
Between stressful stimulus and action is a space. In that space lies your capacity to choose your response.
Diets are a problem and not a solution because you are philosophically and behaviourally the same person.
Here’s what to do instead.
- Accept that stress is normal and inevitable. Take a step back.
- Differentiate hunger from stress
You are going to meet obstacles. And many people get knocked off course because they don’t plan for them.
Obstacle: your child is sick and goes to the hospital.
Understand that the stress you feel is normal.
Maybe you eat an oven pizza because it’s the best option. This is the point you usually declare the diet is off, only to find yourself in the same place again for months and years. Different stress. Same outcome.
Tip: Eating for convenience is normal. Eating for comfort is normal. And you don’t want it to be your only response.
Choose to get back to your habitual diet with your next decision. You have done nothing wrong, but diet conditioning is telling you otherwise.
Obstacle: Your social life constantly derails you. You are stressed all week with worry. Then you ruin the event for yourself by not being present. You may or may not overeat but the result is similar. You weren’t happy before, during or after.
What’s the point, right? You’re breaking your diet rules.
Tip: Life would be without social connection. Strive to see where there is joy you’ve been missing. Whilst certain events may be triggering, accept your social life as normal.
Plan ahead approx. how what/how much you are going to enjoy yourself and get back to your habitual dietary guidelines after.
Obstacle: You have a huge work deadline.
Tip: Accept that it’s normal to be stressed. It won’t go away. It’s there until the deadline passes. Take a moment and remind yourself that overeating seldom brings joy. And it won’t bring any comfort beyond a few seconds.
Strive to choose another coping mechanism—breathwork, a walk, a movie, a book. Several things that don’t involve eating. Especially the hurried and unsatisfying variety.
It’s important to note that stress isn’t going to get fixed. It’s not about making it go away. It’s about taking care of yourself despite stress being there. Because it’s there.
If you accept stress comes and goes, you can prepare for it accordingly.
Three questions to ask yourself if you feel stressed.
- Is there hunger I am feeling a stomach-hunger?
- Would I eat a well-balanced meal or some fruit?
- If I wait for 10 minutes, am I still hungry?
- Has it come on slowly and is it a continued sensation? (as opposed to sudden)
If you answer yes to a few of those, you should probably eat a meal.
If not, it is probably stress and a new response can be chosen. Between stressful stimulus and your response is a gap for you to choose.
You can allow the feeling to pass like clouds passing through the sky.
Thoughts come and go, just like sudden urges. Take a step back and choose to respond.
It’s normal to feel stressed. Once we accept that we can also accept we won’t fix it with food. If anything, because it goes against our values, we are adding to the stress in the long run.
You do not have to fix your stress. You just need to recognise it.
There are a couple of important guidelines
- Big, healthy, balanced meals that fill you
- Removing mindless snacking between meals
- Flexible decision making
Why? Stress eating is much harder to combat when you’re hungry lack routine.
The clients I coach do not benefit from snacking. It usually means they eat extra calories with little to no satiety. Instead, I encourage big, satisfying meals eaten slowly and mindfully.
These are guidelines, not strict rules. The possibility of negotiation should always be open.
Many people skip meals trying to lose weight; thus, they overeat through hunger. The attempt at calorie control drives overeating.
Add stress to the mix and the low-calorie approach is designed to fail.
We want to reduce our chances of genuine hunger contributing to stress eating. Otherwise, it can feel like a dam bursting, and you feel deflated and defective for giving in to a normal human impulse—eating in response to hunger.
Not snacking is a great guideline for distinguishing between hunger and stress.
If your habitual diet is 3-4 meals daily and you feel a long and sustained hunger one day, you might opt for an extra meal.
If it comes on suddenly, it’s probably not hunger. You can begin telling the difference.
Just as it takes time to build strength with push-ups, the same can be said for distinguishing hunger from stress eating. Give it time, patience and perseverance.
Take back control and empower yourself to navigate challenging situations.
Recap for memory
- Self-sabotage is complex. Avoid over-simplistic Internet diagnoses
- Differentiate between hunger and stress with those 4 questions
- Mentally prepare for stress by pre-flecting on when it might arise
- Eat big, filling meals at similar times daily. Create a habit
- Remove snacking between meals
- See it as a skill to practice, like any other