How many times a day do you tell yourself, ‘I can’t have that’ or ‘I shouldn’t do this’? These may seem like innocent thoughts but they can actually have an impact on stress levels, and in turn our bodies.
We often think lack of willpower is to blame for not passing up food we think we shouldn’t eat, but what if there is a biological reason for some cravings? The stress response dates back to evolutionary times when people were in physical danger. Our stress response hasn’t evolved so our bodies don’t know the difference between physical danger and stress. Therefore it responds with a hormonal reaction that can make us feel hungry. When under stress the hormone cortisol is released, which can trigger cravings for sugary, salty, fatty and high carb foods. We crave sugar and carbs specifically because it’s the fuel our muscles need when we go into ‘fight or flight mode’.
Aside from common day-to-day stress there are other factors that increase cortisol levels, some of which may not be obvious, including:
- Negative self-talk. This includes calling yourself names or saying things to yourself like, “What were you thinking? Why did you have to eat that? What a waste!”
- Watching the news. Many stories in the news create stress, which can impact digestion.
- Dreading a workout. When you go for a run and tell yourself how much you hate it, you don’t get the full benefit from the activity.
Reducing the amount of stress we put on ourselves will increase our immune system and decrease emotional distress. Here are four tips to help:
- Eat more mindfully and without distraction. Instead of sitting in front of the TV while eating, enjoy your meal while connecting with someone or listening to music. This allows you to be more aware of what you’re eating and in turn more satisfied.
- Practice self-care. Think about how you can adjust your routine to take care of yourself, even if for 5-10 minutes per day. It may be as simple as making your current routine work better for you. Often we are busy taking care of everyone else that we forget about ourselves. Whether you enjoy meditating, going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath, or just reflecting on the positives from the day, these little breaks will help bring a bit of calm into your day.
- Show yourself self-compassion when negative thoughts arise. When you have a thought that isn’t serving you but you believe, confront it and challenge it. Once you acknowledge it, come up with a physical gesture like human touch to help put you into your body and interrupt the pull to food. Examples of human touch include putting your hand on your heart or touching your forearm.
- Re-frame the thought or situation. This helps flip the situation from negative to allowing room for opportunity. Many times we think of things as all or nothing but we can learn and grow from them instead. For instance, we may think, ‘I’m eating so badly!’ but if we change the thought to “I’m not eating very well yet, but I will get there.” it helps to show we have not failed and there is still room for growth.
Anything new that you try should feel comfortable but challenging. If you feel a sense of striving, gearing up or straining you may want to pull back as you are taking on too many changes. You may not be ready to use all of these tips right away, but start with the ones you are ready for and build from there.