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Overeating During Stressful Times – Psychology and Neuroscience Explains

women eating a chocolate donut - how to stop binge eating and overeating

Binge eating and overeating during stressful times

These are tricky and challenging times. I don’t know about you, but getting out of the lockdown feels surreal and strange at the same time. I have very mixed emotions.  Some of us can’t wait to get out, go shopping and be able to visit their favourite cafes again. Others, experience grief to “need” to go out again, not being able to spend as much time with their family.  I created a poll on Instagram, asking if people were eating more during this period.  An overwhelming 93% said YES!  So here is a timely blog to talk about what might be triggering your binge eating and overeating. Or, what to do if you find yourself eating a bit more than normal, or feeling out of control with food.

 

TRIGGER 1} Survival brain

I love the neuroscience underpinning overeating and binge eating because it empowers us to reprogram our brain to regain control over food.  Our brain is made up of different parts.  The back part is our survival brain.  This is our ‘old brain’, that makes decisions to survive and keep us alive. All animals have this.  But what differentiates humans is our frontal lobe.  With this, we are able to make conscious and rational decisions. It controls emotional expression, judgment, and problem-solving. 

image of a brain. This image reflects the importance of understanding the brain when it comes to binge eating or overeating

Binge eating and overeating

In stressful or uncertain situations, the brain believes you are in danger. It is designed to keep you alive and therefore it releases stress hormones dopamine and cortisol. At the same time it shuts down the rational decision making process so that you can react fast. In the real world, if there is a tiger behind you, your brain is designed to make you run fast and respond to your instincts to survive.

 

When people describe their binge eating episodes, they often describe “not having any control”. It’s like something takes over them. And it’s true. It’s their hormones and basic survival instincts that take over.  The survival brain is signaling us that we ‘need’ to eat this to survive and stay alive.  And the more we act on that trigger from our brain, the more we wire our brain in this way.

 

Re-program

In order to ‘re-program’ our brain, we need to differentiate the trigger from ourselves.  Become conscious and recognize ‘That is the trigger, that is not me’.  Ultimately, it is merely the primal brain in action.  But you know what is better and for your highest good.  Bring yourself back to this consciousness.  Obviously,  this will not always be easy because the primal part of our brain is very powerful.  It is about practice, repetition, and consistency. (I expand more on this in my blog about habits ‘Break Automatic Habits Based On Neuroscience – Master Healthy Habits‘)

Image of a women mediating to demonstrate the importance of acknowledging the triggers to binge eating and overeating not being a 'part' of us. "That is the Trigger, That is not me"

Awareness and change the focus

We become what we think and our thoughts become our reality, therefore, to rewire our brain, we need to break our habitual thoughts. When we become aware of our thoughts, we can change the way we think, then we can change what we do (behavior).  This is the loop process that changes our brain.  Ultimately, we want to create new pathways in the brain to change our habits around food long-term.

 

TRIGGER 2}  Restrictions cause binge eating and overeating

Restrictions play a massive role in binge eating and overeating.   Are you intentionally dieting to fulfill weight-loss goals?  Literature and research shows us that restrictions and negative body image are the two main reasons for binge eating and overeating.  Even if you don’t consciously diet, but don’t allow yourself to eat food you would usually enjoy, gives you a sense of restrictions. Further, during the lockdown, being ‘physically locked down’ to our homes was also causing many  to feel restricted in our ability to access supermarkets and food.  We couldn’t go to the supermarkets or the dairy on the corner, and that felt like there is not enough variety of food, which also feels restricted.

 

Dieter mindset

You might not be explicitly dieting but have a ‘dieter mindset’.  This mindset would include internal dialogue such as ‘I really need to start eating well.  I am really not eating in a way that I need to eat. Once the lockdown is over, I will eat better and exercise more.  Once I am out of this lockdown then I will stop eating all this food’.  This dieter mindset activates the survival part of our brain, causing anticipated scarcity, which can drive binge eating and overeating. 

Image of fork and knife with a measuring tape and quote about diet mindset being important to stop binge eating and overeating

TRIGGER 3}  Emotions

In stressful situations, we are all experiencing different emotions: loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty about money, relationship stress, weight and body image concerns, etc. During these times, many are using food to numb and soothe these emotions.  Ultimately, we find comfort and distraction by binge eating and overeating.

 

So what can I do?

Become aware of your thoughts:

First, we need to get out of the fight and flight mode.  Reinforce to yourself that you are safe.  Remind yourself that you will be fine.  Human beings have experienced wars and illnesses and come out on the other side.  Human beings are strong, resistant, and adaptable.  Notice your thoughts. Ask yourself: is it the ultimate truth? What is the evidence?

 

Calm the nervous system down:

Deep belly breathing. On the count of 4 breathe in and on the count of 6 breathe out. Repeat 10 times. Join restorative yoga classes that will help you to become more mindful and feel more calm and relaxed.

 

Acknowledge and validate your feelings:

Take your time to fully feel your emotions. Even label them, what do they feel like, where in your body can you feel them? Stay with them for a little while. You will notice, when we create space for our feelings, they loose their power. It allows us to calm and make more rational decisions.

bowl of healthy food, demonstrating the importance of eating enough calories to stop binge eating and overeating

Look after your emotions.  Be aware of how you manage your emotions.  Soothe yourself without food. Talk to friends and family.  Go on walks.  Do restorative yoga (join BODY LOVE YOGA or I have FREE VIDEOS HERE).  Find positive ways to accept and manage emotions.  Human beings are innately emotional, and we need to feel safe to express and feel.

 

Binge eating and overeating

Binge eating and overeating are realities for many of us during stressful times. I have a Free Guide To Binge Eating and Overeating where I reveal the hidden triggers and reasons. You can download here or see below. 

binge eating and overeating guide

FREE GUIDE REVEALS

 

6 Hidden Reasons for Binge Eating and Overeating During Covid 19 Lockdown

 

🥑Uncover what is driving your overeating and food cravings

🥑 Beat binge eating with immediately actionable tips

🥑 Feel in control with stocked up food without giving up eating food you love

🥑 Create an easy relationship with food

🥑 Address the root causes

🥑 Eat flexibly without restrictions