Eating Disorders and Stress

Eating at your desk again? Before gobbling down that lunch, try some stress-relieving stretches.

If people only ate when they were hungry the diet industry would be devastated. The fact is, hunger is only a part of why we eat. We also eat to distract ourselves, to relieve tension and for comfort. Many of us eat more-or less-than is healthful because of stress.

Why You Can’t Eat

Stress and the digestive system are intimately connected. In the “fight or flight” response to stress, hormones tell the stomach to either shut down or speed up so that the body responds to danger. That’s why you lose your appetite or get nauseous when you are in a dangerous situation. High levels of stress can trigger a constant level of anxiety. in which you literally can’t choke food down.

Why You Eat TOO Much

On the other hand, the milder anxiety of less intense stress may trigger excess eating for distraction, comfort or tension release. And when you’re under stress you are more likely to eat fast, to eat high-calorie foods and to eat more often.

For the small portion of the population with true eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, stress can trigger a relapse.

What You Can Do

Keep a supply of low-calorie munchies handy at work. Avoid caffeine. Before you eat, try one of these stress-relieving exercises:

  • Deep breathing: take several deep breaths, using your stomach muscles, hold and let all the air out, feeling tension leave your body as you relax.
  • Stretching: shrug and rotate your shoulders; clasp your hands behind you and raise them to a comfortable height; stand up and reach for the ceiling; bend to either side to stretch the muscles of the torso.
  • Take a brisk walk around the building.
  • Close your eyes and visualize a favorite peaceful spot-a meadow in spring or your favorite hideaway. Do this until you begin to feel relaxed.

Managing Stress

Changes in eating habits are a sign that all is not well in your life. If your weight or eating habits have changed as a result of stress, you can be sure that your health is being affected in other ways as well. Take a look at your lifestyle and see if there is anything you can change to make it less stressful. Ask your doctor to refer you to a stress-management clinic where you will learn such coping techniques as meditation, visualization and progressive muscle relaxation.

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