Ask Dr. Merry: Stress Eating

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Mental Health, Personal Growth | 0 comments

 food cravings

I’ve just started a group therapy program at my church that is resurrecting all sorts of memories about my childhood that have been painful. All these thoughts/memories are coming to mind and I’m particularly aware that weight gain has been a cycle in my life since my parents separated when I was 10 years old. I realise when I go on vacation, other than eating less processed foods, I lose weight very quickly due to relaxing/stress relieving rest. My lifestyle is too busy and I’m praying and looking for a job that better accommodates self-care (as I do not have time in my day to workout/go grocery shopping, take a hot bath, etc). So my question is: In the day-to-day, mundane, how can I manage my stress? Particularly the emotional stress/inner ‘silent’ struggle is what plagues me. I just wish there was a way I knew how to just release the stress and instead of automatically stress eating without thinking to ‘medicate’, release the stress in a healthy way. Your help and your blog is MUCH appreciated.

I’m so glad to hear that you’re choosing to face your past issues, and to do it in a group setting where you can experience care and support with others. As a side note, group therapy is one of the most powerful experiences we can have as it allows us to tell our story with peers who understand and can empathize with our pain. We don’t feel so alone, you know?

I also really appreciate the insight that you have about your own struggles – that is definitely a great first step in taking control of your stress eating! I can tell from your question that you are someone who really wants to grow and change, and so I have high hopes for what God is doing in your life. But as I shared in my New Year’s blog on self-compassion, the first thing I would remind you is to give yourself grace as you learn to change in this area of your life. If you haven’t read that blog yet, I would encourage you to do so, as I think it lays the groundwork for the information I’m going to share with you today. This is a journey that will take baby steps – no quick fixes – but will lead to lifelong healthy changes.

Something else to keep in mind too is that stress has physical as well as emotional manifestations, and to really get a handle on stress in your life, you have to deal with both aspects.  Without addressing the physical component, your attempts to use sheer self-control or stress management techniques to manage the emotional aspects will not work. And when you’re under emotional stress (such as when you’re dealing with painful memories), your capacity to cope decreases even more, which lowers your self-control further.


From what you describe of your lifestyle, it sounds like you live a stressful life with little time for self-care. So that tells me that your body may be high in stress hormones (like cortisol) and low in serotonin – a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of well-being, and helps moderate our sleep, moods and appetite. Because sugar helps release serotonin (for the purposes of this blog, when I refer to “sugar”, I’m also talking about simple carbohydrates, like bread and pasta, that transform quickly to sugar in our blood stream), guess what we end up craving when we’re stressed?

This is particularly common if you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue (a common syndrome when you’re under repeated stress for an extended period of time). The adrenal glands secrete chemicals that provide us with energy. However, stress, lack of sleep or insomnia can disrupt the function of these glands and cause exhaustion. When this happens, your body looks to other sources for energy; most often, sugar provides us with a dose at a very fast pace. Feeding our need for energy with sugar, however, boosts our energy levels for a very short duration and can often lead to a major sugar crash, resulting in our need for another boost. See the cycle?

And if you eat on the run a lot and don’t have a balanced diet, then likely you are missing essential nutrients and minerals that your body craves. I want to emphasize how big of a factor this is on our body and our stress. When you are missing proper nutrients, your body will continue to crave food in its attempt to gain the missing nutrients. And of course, if you’re skipping meals or eating food that’s light in these nutrients, the first thing your body will tend to crave is simple carbohydrates (like sugar or starchy foods) to quickly provide it with the energy it needs. Unfortunately, the more you eat it, the more you will crave it.

And like most of us, when we’ve eaten too much, we feel guilty and then try to restrict our food intake – including skipping meals – all of which only leads to further problems in managing our cravings. If you layer sleep deprivation on top of this (which significantly diminishes your metabolism and is linked to weight gain), then even great psychotherapy can’t help you overcome your stress eating!

Can you see why you would be setting yourself up for failure if you don’t address the physical aspect of your stress? I would really encourage you to make this a priority for yourself as no strategies I can teach you can overcome your body’s need for health. And the really great thing is that when you can take care of your physical body, you will find that your mood and emotional well-being will improve dramatically.

As a very busy person myself, I have learned that my nutrition, sleep, and physical health is non-negotiable, and that shift in my thinking and lifestyle has been absolutely key in helping me manage my emotional well-being and stress. This is the only sustainable way. And lest you fear that making these changes isn’t realistic given your current lifestyle, I have worked with many clients who are able to cope with significant stress and a very busy lifestyle by making important shifts in how they care for their bodies through nutrition and sleep. I would strongly encourage you to consult a nutritionist or naturopath who could help you design a simple eating plan that will suit your busy lifestyle yet meet your goals. If you’d like recommendations for experienced practitioners in the Greater Toronto Area, please feel free to email me.


With respect to the emotional aspect of stress, it’s vitally important that you listen to what your body is trying to tell you through your emotions. Many of us try to cope with emotional stress by ignoring and suppressing our feelings, in the hopes that they will just go away. But they don’t, at least not until you’ve taken the time to address your emotions. Think of each of your emotions as having a “need” that has to be met – when that need is met, your emotion is resolved; when that need isn’t met, then your body will seek another way to meet that need – to soothe that emotion – and in your case, it will be through craving for food.

Think of your emotions as signals that your body gives because it’s telling you that something needs to be addressed. Many of us grow up in homes where our emotional needs aren’t even on the radar screen of our parent’s awareness and so we learn early on to ignore them. Or we’re just not taught to know that we have those needs or what to do about them. And so it might be a bit of a journey to learn about your feelings. I write in greater detail in a previous two part blog on Managing Our Emotions (Parts 1 and 2) that I would encourage you to read if you haven’t already.

By taking the time to take care of your emotions, you lessen the pressure for other means of self-soothing. In most cases, our emotions needs to be 1) identified; 2) validated and 3) if necessary, acted upon. Knowing WHAT you feel is an important first step, but then taking the time to understand your feelings – WHY you feel what you do and then giving yourself empathy, is crucial. After you’ve calmed yourself down, you can then begin to problem-solve and decide whether there needs to be some action taken (e.g., confronting someone who has hurt or angered you).

Because this level of emotional self-care takes time to develop, I would encourage you to rely on caring people in your life (including a therapist if you find that your emotions are too intense or overwhelming for your friends or family to handle). Talking it through with a caring friend can be very powerful, allowing you to identify your feelings and be validated, which can then go a long way to decreasing the pressure in your body to soothe through food. As a Christian, taking your emotional angst to God is a very important way to process how you feel, and his compassion and wisdom can help you immeasurably. Over repeated experiences of empathy with caring support people in your life, you will begin to internalize this process and be able to do it for yourself.

Of course, all of this takes time, and in real time life, it’s not always possible to sit back and process your emotions in depth! Can you imagine in the middle of being yelled at by your boss, saying “excuse me, sir, I need to have 30 minutes now to process my emotions”? So some of the immediate techniques you can use to ground yourself include:

  • Tighten both fists as hard as you can, holding it for 15 seconds, and then release them. Repeat this 3 to 5 times. This is a quick version of progressive muscle relaxation, which tightens and relaxes the whole body, bit by bit.
  • Deep breathe for a few minutes (at least 3 to 5 minutes if you can), by breathing deeply and slowly through your nose for 4 counts and then exhaling through your nose slowly in 4 counts. One of my favourite ways of deep breathing is to breath in and out to the word, “Mar-A-Na-Tha”, which means “Come, our Lord” or “Our Lord comes”. I also like to use the words, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come”.
  • Sit down for a minute and notice the sensation of the chair beneath you, the floor beneath your feet, the texture of the arms of the chair, and the sounds and the smells around you.
  • Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it firmly when you are upset. This is a helpful technique if you’re feeling strong emotions that feel overwhelming.
  • Squeeze a stress ball – yes, this is a cliché but it actually does help to ground you because the rhythmic movements and the sensation of squeezing can be very soothing.
  • Go for a quick walk – talking a break from the stress for even a few minutes can help.
  • Think of your “happy place” – somewhere you have felt the most relaxed (e.g., a beach, spa, or a special place in your home).

But one of the most important things you have to do is to promise yourself that you will set aside time later that day or soon after to process your emotions – to give your feelings a “voice”. Either do this with a friend, or in prayer with God, or by yourself. Don’t let your emotions get all “backed up” over time so that you’re more likely to give in to your food cravings!

I hope that this has been helpful in answering your question, but feel free to comment or ask further questions if you need clarification or more information. God bless you on your journey!


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