How to Stop Stress Eating for Good

Gina’s day started off strong. She had a healthy breakfast, worked out during lunch, and felt good about sticking to her wellness goals. But as the work piled up and her inbox overflowed, she felt the stress mounting. By mid-afternoon she felt overwhelmed and upset, and found herself standing in front of the fridge eating leftover banana bread.

She felt guilty as she polished off the last of the banana bread. It wasn’t hunger—it was something deeper. She was eating to cope with stress, a habit that seemed almost too hard to break.”

Like Gina, many of us head to the kitchen when stressed. This habit can steal our time, our health, and our well-being.  We live in a world that’s always on the go, and sometimes it feels like we’re constantly juggling a million things at once. When life gets overwhelming, it’s easy to turn to food for a quick fix, a moment of comfort, and a way to escape all the chaos.

But stress eating is not really about food. It’s about the feelings we’re trying to avoid or numb out. When we’re stressed, anxious, sad, or lonely, food can become our go-to way of coping. We might down a pint of ice cream or munch through a bag of chips, not because we’re physically hungry, but because we’re starving for some stress relief.

Yet when the last bite is gone, we’re left with the same stress as before, plus shame and guilt. It’s a vicious cycle that can leave us feeling trapped and out of control.

But here’s the good news: by getting curious about the emotions driving our stress eating, we can break free from this pattern. Instead of judging ourselves or trying to white-knuckle our way through cravings, we can learn to tune in to our emotional needs and find healthier ways to cope with life’s challenges.

This blog delves into ‌binge eating due to stress and other factors. Learn effective tactics and techniques on how to stop stress eating and develop a healthy relationship with food and yourself. 

It is possible to liberate ourselves from emotional eating, take control of our life, and feel good in our body, all without dieting, spending hours in the gym, or counting a single macro. 

Table of Contents

The Different Types of Stress

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives. We often have little control over our fast-paced, busy, hectic lives. Yet it is possible to change the way we respond to stress.

Stress eating is a kind of emotional eating, and is a coping strategy in which food is used for comfort, relief, distraction, or reward. 

The term “stress” is used often but there are actually different types of stress. Here is a breakdown of the various types of stress:

  1. Acute Stress – The most common type of stress is acute stress and this kind of stress is situational. It is triggered when you have a deadline at work, get into an argument, or are in an accident. This stress is specific to a situation and isn’t chronic. 
  1. Episodic Acute Stress – Next is what is called episodic acute stress, which happens over and over every day. This type of stress is common in people who have busy, hectic lifestyles or those who are always worried because if you’re always worried, you’re always stressed. 
  1. Chronic Stress – As its name suggests, chronic stress is always there, lurking in the background. It comes from the pressures that are a constant in our lives like financial issues, dysfunctional family dynamics, relationship difficulties, professional dissatisfaction, a toxic work environment, and things of that nature. Chronic stress is the long-lasting, persistent kind of stress that comes from ongoing pressures and challenges in our lives, and is considered the most damaging type of stress
  1. Eustress –  This is a positive form of stress that might be thought of as “good” stress. When we’re energized and excited, it’s hard to realize we’re actually stressed. While it may appear positive, eustress negatively affects our ability to relax and feel at ease. Even if we’re doing what you love, if we’re working 16 hours a day we’re still under stress.
  1. Physical stress can occur when we don’t get enough sleep, get sick or injured, or have poor nutrition. These things and many more can physically stress our bodies. 
  1. Existential stress or existential anxiety refers to the stress of struggling to discover the meaning and purpose of life. When we fail to find purpose, it can lead to depression or chronic anxiety.

Food as a Coping Strategy

To succeed on how to stop stress eating, first you need to understand that stress is a coping mechanism that can be both an enemy and a friend. It can be a friend because it provides comfort, relief, and distraction from stressful situations. It’s also our enemy because it makes us feel bad, and negatively affects our physical health and self-esteem.

Stress eating or any kind of emotional eating serves as a negative coping strategy. Food can act as a sedative, especially high-carb foods that calm our bodies when we’re anxious. Eating is also a way of distracting from difficult thoughts and feelings.

Sometimes it’s easier to focus on what we’re eating instead of what’s eating “at” us.  Instead of occupying our thoughts with worries about life, we head for the kitchen. Food distracts us and temporarily relieves us from the aspects of our daily lives that are stressful. 

Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger

Stress can also trick our bodies into thinking we’re physically hungry when we’re not. This phenomenon occurs when emotional hunger is actually felt as physical hunger

Because of the mind-body connection, any state of yearning can trigger a sense of physical hunger. Wanting “more” of something in life, such as more money, more friends, more job satisfaction, more peace of mind, or more fun can be felt as physical hunger.

Expressions such as “hungry for love” or “starving for attention” show the connection between a hungry heart and physical hunger. Physical hunger is much easier to address than emotional hunger. For example, we cannot have more financial security or find love when we want it, but we can always eat more of something.

How to Stop Stress Eating

When stress is trying to hijack our brain, there are some techniques that can alleviate worry so that we don’t eat to cope. One technique is to take a closer look at the thoughts fueling our anxiety.

  1. What IS instead of What IF

We often stress ourselves by worrying about the future. We imagine all the worst-case scenarios, convincing ourselves that doom and gloom are just around the corner. 

  • What if I get fired?
  • What if I can’t pay the mortgage?
  • What if I make a mistake?
  • What if I’m single forever?
  • What if things don’t get better?

When we’re stuck in “what if” mode, we’re basically living in fear. These “what if” thoughts are not reality. They’re just our anxious minds playing tricks on us, making us believe that the future is going to be terrible when, in fact, we have no idea what’s actually going to happen.

Yet, those thoughts lead to real anxiety in the present, and then to eating for comfort, distraction, sedation, or some other solace.

To break free from the “what if” trap, focus on “what is” which is reality and what we know to be true. When we ground ourselves in the present moment and the facts of the situation, we’re less likely to get swept up by anxiety.

Instead of fixating on everything that might go wrong, remind yourself of what you know to be true now. If you’re worried about getting fired one day, consider that now you have a job. 

Remember when you’ve faced tough situations and come out the other side. When you remember your own resilience and capability, fear loses its grip. You realize that you’ve already survived so much, and you have the strength to handle whatever comes your way.

The next time you spiral into “what if” thinking, return to “what is.” Focus on the present moment and the facts of the situation, and remind yourself of all the times you’ve proven just how capable you truly are.

When you live in “what is” instead of “what if,” food loses its power as a coping mechanism. You’ll feel more grounded, more confident, and more in control of your life and your choices and this is key on how to stop stress eating.

  1. Practice Muscle Relaxation

One stress-relieving technique is the tense-and-release technique, which is simple and can be done anywhere and anytime. First, tighten up all your muscles like you’re getting ready to lift a heavy weight. Tighten your legs, stomach, arms, thighs, and biceps. Make tight fists and feel the tension throughout your entire body. 

Then, fully and completely release your muscles. Feel a wave of calm washing over your body, from head to toe. Take a moment to let in that feeling of relaxation.

When you relax your body, your mind will follow suit. The beauty of this exercise is that it’s all about contrast. We can’t relax without first experiencing tension. 

Try it the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious. It might feel a little silly at first, but trust me, your body (and your mind) will thank you. 

  1. Track the Triggers

We like to think that we’re fully aware of what’s going on inside our own minds. But ‌there’s a lot happening beneath the surface that we’re not even conscious of. It’s like an iceberg: we only see the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a massive, hidden structure underneath we can’t see. 

Our minds work the same way. We’re aware of the thoughts and feelings that are right in front of us, but it’s the hidden emotions that influence our behavior.

While it often seems as if we’re triggered by food‌, what’s behind stress eating are emotional triggers.

  • Why are you stress eating? Start by being curious about why you are turning to food. Why are you stressing eating? Why are you emotional eating? Why are you binge eating? Be curious about your hidden “why” instead of focusing on what you are eating.
  • What’s the trigger? As an example, if you realize that every time you see your mother-in-law you end up tearing into a bag of chips, it’s likely there’s something about your mother-in-law that is triggering. 
  • Focus on the Trigger, not the Food. Chips are not the problem; they are a temporary solution to the problem. Instead of focusing on chips, it’s most helpful to cultivate new ways to deal with your mother-in-law.  

Keeping a journal is a great tool to identify the patterns that lead to stress eating. This is helpful to help you identify the stressful situations and emotions that lead to  food cravings and impact your eating habits.

These patterns may be related to past experiences, childhood wounds, or unresolved traumas. They might be tied to deep-seated fears, insecurities, or beliefs about ourselves and our world. Even though we’re not fully aware of them, they affect how we think, feel, and act, and may lead to eating for comfort or distraction.

For example, you might put the needs of others before your own, even when it leaves you feeling drained and resentful. On the surface, you might tell yourself you’re just being a good friend or a responsible employee. But underneath, there might be a fear of rejection or a deep-seated belief that you’re not worthy of love and care.

Or maybe you reach for food whenever you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. You might tell yourself that you’re just hungry or that you need a quick energy boost. But ‌there might be some unresolved emotions or conflicts that you’re trying to numb or avoid.

By bringing these hidden emotions and conflicts into the light of awareness, we can understand ourselves on a deeper level. We can recognize the patterns and triggers of stress eating and make more conscious, intentional choices

The Best Way to Deal with Stress

The next time you find yourself stress eating, first use the tense-and-release technique to relax your body. Then ask yourself what’s eating “at” you, and identify what’s bothering you. 

Consider what you’d say to a friend who was stressed. If a friend shared anxiety about an upcoming work event, would you offer cookies or order pizza to make them feel better?

Probably not. Most people listen to their friends, inviting them to share their emotions and offering support. This is something you need to do to yourself as well – being kind and supportive.

Distractions vs Emotional Expressions

When we bottle up our feelings, they don’t just magically disappear. They fester and grow, often becoming unmanageable.

  1. Express your emotions freely – Expressing emotions in a healthy way begins with giving ourselves permission to acknowledge our emotions without judgment or shame. Whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or frustration, every emotion is a reaction to a situation, not a character flaw.
  1. Don’t hold back – Once we’ve identified our feelings, the next step is to express ourselves. That might mean talking to a trusted friend or therapist, writing in a journal, yelling into a pillow, or having a good cry. The key is fully experiencing our emotions without holding back or trying to push them away.
  1. Comfort yourself – Then, respond to yourself with love, support, and encouragement. Offer yourself words of comfort, validation, and understanding. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best and that it’s okay not to have it all figured out.

Expressing emotions can be challenging, especially if you’ve been taught to keep a stiff upper lip or to “just get over it.” That’s where another short-term stress-management strategy comes in: distraction.

Stress eating is the ultimate distraction from our emotions, but it is a negative distraction. Instead, you might try a healthier strategy, such as getting lost in a good book, taking a walk or other exercise, or doing something creative.

The key to distraction is that it’s a temporary coping mechanism, not a long-term avoidance strategy. It’s a temporary break because ultimately the only way to get rid of feelings is to actually feel them. Eventually, we have to give those emotions the attention they deserve. 

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to handling stress. What works for one person might not work for another. The important thing is to keep showing up for yourself with compassion and care.

If you want support to help stress eating, emotional eating, or binge eating, consider joining a support group like Dr. Nina’s Food for Thought community where you can meet other people and share your thoughts and experiences.

Final Thoughts

Stress eating is a complex issue that requires identifying the underlying emotions and triggers driving our behavior. By understanding the different types of stress, and developing practical coping strategies, including acknowledging and expressing our emotions, we know what to do on how to stop stress eating from wrecking havoc in our lives. 

So, the next time stress threatens to send you heading to the kitchen, take a moment to ask yourself what you really need at that moment. With practice and patience, you can learn to nourish yourself in ways that truly support your well-being – both in body and mind. Please comment below and share which of these strategies is most helpful to you.

Frequently Asked Questions

You’ve been learning all about how to stop stress eating and the ways to cope with it. But you might still have some lingering questions. So, let’s confront these head-on in this section – the Frequently Asked Questions. 

1. What triggers Stress eating?

 Stress eating is a coping strategy where individuals use food to deal with emotional pain or distress. It often involves consuming food not out of hunger but as a way to find temporary solace from overwhelming emotions.

2. How can someone break the cycle of stress eating?

Breaking the cycle of stress eating often involves learning new coping mechanisms, understanding the emotional triggers, and forming a healthier relationship with food. Therapy can also be beneficial to unearth deep-seated issues facilitating emotional eating.

How can I determine if I’m emotionally eating?

3. How can I determine if I'm stress eating?

Stress eating is often triggered by emotional distress rather than physical hunger. If you find yourself eating in response to stress, sadness, or boredom, and if this behavior becomes a pattern, it might be a sign of emotional eating.

4. What are some healthy coping mechanisms for stress eating?

Healthy coping mechanisms include making friends with your emotions, cultivating alternative activities for stress relief, developing a balanced relationship with food, and seeking support from friends, family, or professionals. Engaging in regular exercise and practicing mindfulness and meditation are also effective strategies.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a renowned author and podcast host and one of the nation’s leading psychoanalysts known for the psychology of eating. Her signature message of, “It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating ‘at’ you” has resonated with hundreds of thousands of listeners from around the globe in 40 countries. As founder of The Binge Cure Method, she guides emotional eaters to create lasting food freedom so they can take back control of their lives and feel good in their bodies.

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