Understanding how stress leads to overeating and procrastination

With many of my clients coming upon mid-year university exams in a matter of weeks, I thought now would be timely to reflect upon the way stress can play out during exam time for school and university students, as well as in the workplace.

Though after years of study I am now fortunate enough to not have to go through the stress of exams, I so vividly remember the toll they played on my eating patterns and self esteem, and now sometimes in the workplace these same patterns can re-emerge when it is busy, stressful or there are difficult deadlines to meet. Two examples instantly came to mind which are typical for not only myself, but many others:

  • Mindless stress eating
  • Procrastinating (often using thoughts of and eating food as the vehicle for this procrastination)

So why do we eat when stressed?

Well this is another example of emotional eating.When we are stressed or under pressure we often try to seek comfort from somewhere to soothe ourselves, and one of the most immediate ways we can achieve this is by turning to food.

When we experience stress, our autonomic nervous system, or fight, flight, freeze stress response is activated, as our natural response to stress is to interpret it as a threat. This automatic response is our body’s way of preparing us to take action in order to reduce the threat to our safety. Our heart beats faster getting our body ready to move with purpose, our senses are heightened to what is going on around us, and less necessary processes such as digestion are halted so that we may use all our energy and all our focus for processes that will enable us to reach safety. These days of course in the western world, we are not subjected to life and death situations as much as we may have been in the stone age, but this evolutionary fight, flight, freeze response has remained with us.

Stress eating however, most commonly occurs during times of prolonged stress when it is not necessary for us to take immediate action, but when the threat or stress is still perceived. During this time rather than decreasing the appetite as is typical when threat is imminent, during prolonged stress the brain releases a chemical called cortisol which increases our appetite (particularly for high fat and high sugar foods with lots of instant energy), as well as our motivation.

So when we stress eat we are actually soothing our mind and our body by giving the body what the mind thinks it needs and once the stressful period is over, the cortisol levels reduce and return to their norm. The problem however is when stress in endured and perceived for a prolonged period, this can lead to unwanted weight gain, and other health or mental health concerns can result.

Please refer to my previous blog: Emotional eating, what’s eating you Part 2, for tips to help counter stress and emotional eating.

Why you use food as a distraction, and how to stop procrastinating!

Using food to divert our attention from not wanting to start, finish or continue something that we don’t particularly want to do is a common habit for many of us.  Often we can find ourselves unknowingly snacking and believing we feel hungry when trying to avoid a certain task. And often rather than actually having a break from study or working on a deadline and clearing our head (as we can convince ourselves that is a waste of time), taking time to eat, as it is a basic human need, can be justified to ourselves more easily and we may perceive it as being a more worthwhile task. It is when these trips to the fridge or the cafe before frequent, mindless and/or anxiety ridden that it is time to stop and take note of what is really going on.

We can get so caught up in the trap of anxiety when thinking about starting or finishing something and wanting to do it perfectly, or not believing we can execute it well, that we can easily find ourselves engaging in a myriad of distractions, avoiding the task, and emotionally eating. One way we can interrupt this cycle is by having a change or scenery and going for a quick 5 minute walk. This not only provides a distraction from the urge or impulse to seek food, but it also gets our body moving, using some of that energy resulting from the anxiety or stress, and it increases our endorphins which can act as a sedative as well as an analgesic. Longer term though, by being kinder to ourselves and reducing our black and white thinking, we can change this stress eating cycle.

Black and white thinking refers to there being little or no grey area in our thinking. It is thinking in extremes such as, “I didn’t do well on my last assignment so I will probably get the same outcome this time…there is no point in me even trying,” or, “I just ate all that food, I have ruined my diet today already so I may as well just keep eating.” But if we can practice more self compassion and acknowledge the efforts we do make rather than disregarding them and focussing on the negative, then we can maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of our efforts whether it be completing an assignment, working to a deadline in the office, or keeping on track with our health and fitness goals.

Alyce Mayman, Counsellor and Psychotherapist


If you or someone you love is having issues with emotional eating, restrictive eating  or other disturbed eating patterns, please reach out for support and enquire today about engaging Alyce Mayman here at Attuned Psychology in Adelaide. Call us on 08 8361 7008 or email [email protected].

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