By Kathleen Birmingham

Stress is responsible for affecting your body in many ways: Stress can cause muscle tension, clouded thoughts, an inability to sleep and even eating disorders. The effect stress has on your body can hurt you, robbing you of your health and vitality. 

When stress becomes more than you can handle, you develop ways to cope, which may include binge eating or not eating at all. These habits can result in dangerous eating disorders. Learning to manage your stress can create a healthier you and reduce your tendency to use food to cope.

How Your Body Responds to Stress

Recent studies have shown that some acute stress responses are actually good for you, helping to improve your immune system. Stress, in its acute form, produces two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your breathing and pulse rates, preparing your body for an emergency. For periodic, manageable stress, this is a perfectly healthy physical response.

For people who have not discovered a good reaction to stress, they may face chronically elevated levels of cortisol. That is where the vicious cycle starts.

Chronically high cortisol levels prompt your body to become more reactive to stress throughout the day. This means that even small situations you used to be able to handle well now create an all-out stress response, with the accompanying elevated blood pressure and increased pulse rate. Over time, this affects your ability to think clearly and creatively, and can cause untold damage to your health.

In a perfect world, your body would experience stress, handle your response to it and your body’s systems would return to normal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. When a threat is perceived, whether real or not, you keep thinking about it. The power of your imagination causes your body to respond as though a threat is real, even if it isn’t. This is the root of what is called the “stress response.”

The longer an acute stress phase lasts, the more difficult time you have getting out of it. If you handle stress with food, entering the stress cycle causes you to turn to food as a coping mechanism.

How Stress Affects Eating

Stress can have a powerful effect on your appetite and food cravings. Stress affects the way your body chooses healthy foods, how you digest those foods and how you absorb nutrients. Poor diet contributes to stress, which, in turn, contributes to a poor diet. For a number of people, food becomes a mechanism for coping with stress.

There are two kinds of stress eaters:

  1. The emotional eater. Emotional eaters turn to food when feeling anxious and have a tendency to overeat at every meal. Or they may put off eating until dinner, and then they overindulge. This type of eater also turns to food when feeling sad, after a bad day at work, when frustrated or when a relationship turns sour.
  2. The restrictive eater. This type of eater restricts their food intake, which increases their stress because they forbid themselves from eating specific foods. These eaters diet frequently, often cutting out entire food groups and depriving themselves of vital nutrients. Restrictive eaters set themselves up for binging, stress-related eating and life-long weight fluctuations.

Continued stress can also increase your cortisol level, stimulating feelings of hunger. Cortisol is responsible for cravings for sugar and high fat foods. It also contributes to the formation of fat in your midsection, putting you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, increased blood pressure and Type II diabetes

How to Reduce Stress

Stress is a reaction to a threat, whether physical or emotional. To handle stress better, you need to learn to evaluate that threat and determine how serious it is. Then you must ask yourself how you can deal with it without it having a negative effect on you and your eating habits.

In order to do this, you must determine just how much control you have over the stressful situation. Then you must decide on a course of action that involves a constructive way to deal with the stress.

One of the best ways to decrease stress in your life is to avoid situations that cause you stress. This may be hard to do, since many situations are unexpected, but work on finding ways to inject peace and happiness into your life. Also find activities that keep you calm and centered, such as exercise, journaling or meditation. These can go a long way to helping you keep stress at bay.

Handling stress is as individualized as the person experiencing it. What works for one person may not necessarily work for you. But, by becoming aware of stress in your life, you’re at least starting to take control.