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Why effective stress-management is key to changing your food-related behaviours

"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” - William James

Many people that I work with tell me that they make the worst food choices when they feel stressed or anxious. Their worries about a particular situation drives them to seek comfort in food - for that quick high - for that quick boost, so that they can feel better. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this occasionally but when someone is choosing food to cope with stress on a very regular basis (which often also then leads them to feel very guilty and ashamed for making poor food choices), this can have a very negative impact on the state of someone’s physical and mental health.

Stress brings about physical changes in our body which were designed to enable us to escape from a predator - so we may experience an increased heart-rate, blood diverts away from our brain and digestive system and towards our limbs, sugar is released into our blood and our hormonal profile changes (e.g. more of the stress hormone cortisol is released into the body). This stress response also has an effect on the part of our brain that is responsible for our will-power, which makes it very difficult to make the choices that we want to when it comes to our eating habits. Now these days, very few of us are experiencing a stress response in order to deal with a predator (hopefully?!). These days the things causing our stress are a huge workload, an annoying boss, complaining children, a traffic jam or mounting bills. Yet that physical stress response is not caused by the workload, boss or traffic jam themselves - it is caused by how we think about these circumstances. So let’s say someone was really affected by their boss acting erratically and thought “I hate this guy, he is so annoying” - they are much more likely to have a stress response than someone who thinks “he must be having issues with his wife right now, I hope he is okay”. Similarly, someone in a traffic jam thinking “this is a disaster, I am going to be so late” is more likely to have a physical stress response than someone thinking “there’s nothing I can do about this - I’ll deal with work once I get there”.

So you see it is our thoughts about a particular situation that creates our stress response. So these thoughts in turn are what cause us to over-eat sometimes (or reach for that cake/biscuit when we don’t want to). Now it is not your fault you are experiencing these thoughts or this stress response in a particular situation. Firstly, some situations are stressful for a reason - because we should be doing something practically to change them. So let’s say my boss started swearing at me and I feel stressed - I should probably complain about him, so my stress served a purpose. Or say my workload was so excessive that 4 people should be doing my job - again my stress is serving the purpose of encouraging me to get some help/delegate the work. Secondly, even where the stress is just in a traffic jam or when my boss is a bit moody - the thoughts I am having are often automatic responses to that situation due to a similar situation I have faced in the past (or in my childhood). Those thoughts arise from subconscious beliefs I have about a situation or the world more generally - the thoughts come up automatically because of the life I have led so far.

So it is not our fault we have a particular thought or a particular stress response. Yet if we realise that we feel stressed in a particular situation (and we don’t practically need to do anything to change the situation) - we can improve our stress response by asking ourselves, what did I think/believe before I experienced this stress. For example, when that person talked to me, I felt stressed because I thought “this person is so annoying and they are going to tell me to do something unreasonable” or I felt stressed when I saw my inbox full of emails because I thought “I am never going to be able to get this all done”. Now the good news in all of this is that we can train our brain to think a DIFFERENT THOUGHT and therefore manage our stress response. So the next time you think a negative thought in a situation - actively talk yourself out of it -rationalise that thought and try and direct your mind to something more positive. As you do this enough times, you can build a completely new pattern of thinking.

Managing your stress in this way is likely to help you also to feel much more in control of your food choices. Reaching for those biscuits because you feel overwhelmed and stressed is much less likely when you start noticing what thinking is causing you to feel stressed - and start changing those thoughts to ones which make you feel better. Realising that it is our thoughts and not a situation that causes us to feel a particular way is very empowering - because whilst we may not be able to change what is going on in the world around us, we can always work to start changing our patterns of thinking (it may take a bit of time and effort - but it is certainly worth it to be happier and healthier in the long term).

"Stress is a byproduct of subconscious beliefs you have about the world. You can't choose not to believe something. You believe it because you think it's true. To eliminate stress, you must learn to challenge these beliefs so that you see them differently.” - Andrew J. Bernstein

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