As a family caregiver, it’s completely understandable and perfectly normal to feel stressed from time-to-time. But if stress ever overcomes you and compels you to eat even when you’re not physically hungry, you may be stress eating.
Also called emotional eating, stress eating is when you find yourself excessively snacking or binging on food because you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing stressful situations. In the short term, stress can actually decrease your appetite. But if stress persists, it could trigger a hormonal shift and increase your appetite for the long-term.
Maybe you’re stress eating because you’re worried about your mom or dad who has dementia. Or perhaps your parent will soon be moving to hospice, which can be fraught with strong emotions.
When considering how to stop stress eating, it’s best to get to the root of the issue. Once you’ve identified the source of your emotional eating, you can take some practical steps to help curb your stress-induced appetite. Knowing that there’s hope will encourage you to get you through these hard times.
How Stress Makes You Want to Eat
Researchers have long been aware of the relationship between stress and poor eating habits. Since eating is responsible for releasing feel-good hormones in the brain, it is very effective at acting as a cover for stress and other negative emotions.
A good way to notice how stress makes you eat is by differentiating between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
You have most likely felt real physical hunger at some point in your life. It’s an overall hunger sensation that gradually grows over time and does not give you strong cravings for specific foods.
It’s easy to become full when experiencing true hunger. Your stomach sends a signal to your brain telling you “that’s enough.” But if the satiation you’re craving is emotional rather than physical, it’s much harder to fill that void.
Unlike true physical hunger, emotional eating is triggered by negative emotions (or physical conditions such as fatigue or exhaustion) and a need to feel comforted. When stress eating, you may begin to think excessively about “comfort food” or junk food — a bag of chips, ice cream, and other salty and sugary snacks.
Loading up on these types of non-nutritive foods can lead to mindless, emotional overeating, and thus weight gain. And once the binge eating begins, it may be difficult to stop.
How to Stop Stress Eating While Caring for Your Parent
Caregiving involves adding many new responsibilities to your already busy life. It entails being there for your aging parent who you love, and whose declining health may be taxing your own mental, emotional, and physical health.
While it’s difficult to see your mom or dad declining, don’t lose sight that you are likely doing the best you can and there are ways to improve your state of mind.
Mindfulness meditation seems to be a promising method for keeping stress (and thus stress eating) in check. This scientifically researched practice helps you tune into the present moment.
It’s a way to quiet the mind, get centered, and relieve tension. It does this by focusing on things such as your breath, your present surroundings, and your senses.
Developing a daily mindfulness meditation practice can help reduce stress eating by learning to observe and not attach to the negative emotions associated with emotional eating in the first place. Try to meditate first thing in the morning and/or at night before bedtime for at least 10 minutes.
Is your parent still able to enjoy exercising? If so, perhaps you can share some physical activities together. Not only does exercise present a good opportunity for you and your parent to bond, but it has also been proven to be a powerful form of stress reduction.
If your parent is able to engage in physical exercise, you may want to try these forms of exercise on a regular basis. Even if your mom or dad isn’t able to join you, it’s still a good idea for you to exercise as a way to take care of your own health.
- Walking: This is arguably one of the easiest ways to diminish stress. You don’t need to join a gym or buy any special equipment. You simply put on your walking shoes and get outside. It’s an achievable activity for you and your parent to do together and it’ll help you both get some fresh air while doing your body (and mind) some good.
- Yoga: Posture yoga is great for stretching your body, strengthening your body, and providing an effective form of balance exercise. Also, yoga usually provides a meditative component which, as previously established, is great for stress relief.
- Aerobics: Whether it be simple at-home exercises such as leg-raises, arm-circles, squats, or lunges, getting the heart rate moving a little bit every day can help kick out stress from your life.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is the gold standard of therapy today. This form of therapy has proven effective for resolving anxiety issues as well as emotional eating habits.
Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to change negative thought patterns of anxiety and depression. It can also be used to guide you through difficult times in your life that are not necessarily associated with chronic mental illnesses.
While it takes a serious commitment on your part, CBT may offer a solution on how to stop stress eating. It may be worth seeing a therapist who can formulate an effective routine and techniques for you to use as you continue on your journey as a family caregiver. These may involve meditation techniques, cognitive restructuring strategies, and more.
Despite bouts of stress eating, you’re still bound to have successful meals where normal hunger and eating patterns are at play. These times provide the perfect opportunity to practice mindful eating.
Eating mindfully simply means paying close attention to what you eat and how you eat. It means choosing to eat healthy foods that nourish your body, focusing on the food you’re eating without distractions such as TV or your smartphone, and chewing your food thoroughly and appreciating the flavors and textures.
Here are some more general tips to help you practice mindful eating.
Try meal planning.
Meal planning can help you eat healthily throughout the week while ensuring there aren’t any snacks lingering around the house for stress-induced eating binges.
Cook your meals.
Rather than heating up microwavable meals, cooking your meals forces you to be patient and mindful with your food. If you’re on the run or getting home late from work, stick to the meal planning option above.
An important part of mindful eating is making sure the space you eat in is clean and peaceful. Make sure the table is clear of clutter and wiped down. If possible, clean the entire room where you have your meals to help create an uncluttered, tranquil environment. For further effect, try playing some calming music during your meal. Jazz or a meditation playlist are usually good options.
Eat slowly and mindfully.
Eating one spoonful at a time is one method for how to stop stress eating. Try to not have another spoonful or forkful until all of your food is completely swallowed. Notice the flavor of your food, the smell, and how it’s making you feel.
In the meantime, try to eliminate distractions by putting your phone on silent and not doing anything else other than eating. By truly being with your food, you’re basically doing a form of mindfulness meditation which can be very healing for your relationship with food.
Once your plate is empty, take a deep breath, clean your dishes, and begin some other activity outside of the kitchen. It’s important to step away and begin something quickly to prevent an episode of overeating in the kitchen after meals.
Eating Can Be an Activity That Adds Pleasure to Your Life
There are many coping mechanisms for dealing with stress — some helpful and some harmful. If food and mindless eating is currently yours, know that you can learn how to stop stress eating with practice.
Food and eating is an activity that is meant to add to your health and well-being rather than hinder it. You may have heard the phrase “eat to live rather than live to eat.”
If you’re a caregiver trying to find solace through stressful times, remember that along with all of the tips and advice above, it’s always a good idea to talk to someone.
Talking with family, friends, a support group, doctor, or therapist about your struggles can help you see it in a new perspective and may even help you get closer to healing it.
Do you have any stories related to stress eating? Have you found any helpful tips or techniques? We’d love to hear from you.