Is Food Your Coping Mechanism?

5262932_sHave you ever had the following thought? “Food is my best friend and my worst enemy.” A recent national survey found that half of Americans report more stressed than they felt five years ago and 43% use food to cope. Emotional eating is one of the hallmarks of hormonal imbalance for women in their mid-30s through mid-50s and nearly every woman I see experiences it at some level.

Why do women emotionally eat? Many women are chronically stressed; this means they suffer from higher levels of cortisol. Thanks to all that cortisol, when we’re under stress, we tend to crave foods that are high in sugar and fat as our bodies are trying to store calories to help us prepare to fight or flee. Of course the problem is that you usually can’t fight or flee from whatever your stressor is (e.g., lost keys, waiting for the cable repairman).

So when it comes down to it, we are biologically driven to eat foods that help us ‘cope’ in ineffective ways. We don’t realize this, though. All we know is that we want chocolate and we want it now.

From a psychological perspective, emotional eating usually falls into one of two categories: avoidant or emotion-focused coping. Avoidant coping is just what the name implies – you avoid dealing with the stressor. Eating when you are stressed so you don’t have to deal with the problem is an example of avoidant coping using food. As you might imagine, avoidant coping is rarely effective as the problem is still going to be there once you’ve stopped eating.

Emotion-focused coping using food can be equally ineffective. When we engage in emotion-focused coping, we are attempting to make ourselves feel better by addressing the emotions the stressor provoked rather than the stressor itself. So if you get in a fight with your significant other and, instead of talking it out, decide to comfort your hurt feelings by consuming a chocolate cake, that would be an example of emotion-focused coping using food. Again, not super helpful in this situation. While you might feel better after eating (or not – you might feel guilty if you ate something you have labeled as “bad” or eaten too much), you still haven’t fixed your problem.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Most of the time our problems are within our control to fix – cortisol, be damned – and eating is likely not going to help. Thus, what we should be doing is focusing on how to fix our problems. That’s where problem-focused coping comes in. As the name implies, the basic premise of problem-focused coping is this: “Have a problem? Fix it.” So if you have a fight with your significant other, wait a little bit to calm down and then go back and talk it out. Don’t turn to food to comfort yourself because that’s not actually addressing the problem.

I know, I know. That sounds great, but how can you make that change? I’m going to warn you: it’s not going to happen overnight. If you’ve been turning to food as your primary coping mechanism for 40 years, you can’t expect it to go away overnight. I wish it was that simple, but for most of us, it’s not. After all, we have biologically trained ourselves to crave our comfort foods.

So what should you do?

Step one : re-evaluate your response to stress. As I said earlier, most of our problems are fixable and most of them are within our control. So very first thing you need to do is Stop. Right when you begin to feel yourself getting stressed out, Stop for just one minute. Then ask yourself, “Is this going to kill me?” The answer to that question is likely no. Then you move onto the next question:  “What can I do about it?” That brings us to…

Step two: take a deep breath. Do it again. When our bodies are all wound up, it can be very hard to focus on what to do right now to fix your problem. It works best if you can stop that stress response in its tracks by giving your body the cues it needs that the stressor has passed (no stressor, no food cravings). As deep breathing is counteractive to gearing up to fight or flee, it can be an effective way to calm down enough that you can actually deal with the problem.

Step three: decide HOW to cope. Yes, it’s up to you. While it may seem like it happens automatically, it only happens this way if you don’t give yourself any other option other than to act in a way you’ve previously dealt with that stressor. In other words, if you’ve conditioned yourself to eat chocolate cake every time you fight with your spouse, the next time you fight with your spouse, guess what? You’re going to find yourself automatically reaching for that chocolate cake. Unless you give your body, and mind, permission to do something else. In the meantime, know that you DO have a choice in the matter.


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