Alternatives to Eating for Comfort in Times of Stress

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Alternatives to Eating for Comfort in Times of Stress

Alternatives to Eating for Comfort in Times of Stress

If you consider how often and how automatically we rely on food to manage our anxiety, medicate our feelings and manipulate our moods the link between stress and food is undeniable.

Yet we’ve grown up in a culture in which food has become much more than a source of fuel.  It symbolizes a spectrum of human needs and wants, including comfort, companionship, reward, punishment, escape, control and power. 

As infants, our caretakers popped a bottle into our mouths to relax and quiet us.  As kids, cookies and candy became rewards for good behavior or a fine report card.  You may remember being bribed with food, like the fellow who recalls that twice a year, his payoff for enduring his dental checkups without resistance was –go figure—candy!

Food – and the withholding of it—has long been used to control children’s behavior.  Remember the threat of all threats:  being sent to bed with no supper?  And how many times was dessert the reward for eating all your dinner, even if it meant cramming down more food than you were even hungry for? 

So it is any wonder that stress and food rank right up there with Mickey and Minnie Mouse among the world’s most enduring combinations?  When you look at how our culture has conditioned us to think about and use food, it should come as no surprise that so many of us have grown up relying on it to cope with the stress and anxiety of our everyday lives. 

Because emotional eating is such a big factor in the development of obesity, we’re going to take a closer look at stress, identifying the sources of it and managing the effects of it. 

To hit the ground running, begin thinking about the things you do to manage your stress when you can’t have that snack you’re prone to grab for.  Some might not be any better for you than the snack reaction.

But there are much healthier ways of handling momentary periods of pressure, ways that can free us from our reliance on food as comfort, and actually come in pretty handy when we’re stressed out and it’s just not convenient to have a hot fudge sundae. 

Two that we are big advocates of are massage and focused relaxation.  Now, if you were in the middle of some work-related pressure cooker, you’d probably be thinking, “Who’s got time for a massage?  Give me the corn chips!”  But both these stress tools can be fairly quick mechanisms.  We’re talking about self-massage here, and simple meditation techniques that don’t require any more than a few minutes.

Sticking your neck out

When you’re stressed out, where do you typically feel the tension first?  For most of us, stiffness and tenderness in the neck and shoulders are immediate clues to stress.  Rather than medicate or mask the tension by crunching potato chips or munching brownies, try a more active, hands-on approach. 

First, reach up with both hands to the base of your skull, with one hand under each ear.  Feel the muscles and the bones.  Press firmly against the bone with some pressure.  If you do this correctly, at first it will feel uncomfortable.  Then move your hands back and forth in short, lateral movements down the muscles of your neck so that you cover the entire width and length of the muscle.  If it feels uncomfortable, remind yourself that the relief will last longer than the discomfort. 

When you first begin doing it, make a point to apply at least one minute of uninterrupted pressure as you massage your neck. It takes that long to begin relaxing muscle tension, which is caused by an excess of acids accumulating in the muscle.  Rub from the base of your skull under your ears, down the sides of your neck and out to your shoulder blades. 

If you do this every day, a few times a day, you can often prevent the muscle tightness that leads to tension headaches.  You may feel some tenderness on the second day, but don’t let it deter you.  Even a little bruised feeling is normal; it’s a natural result of having worked acidic muscles. 

If you do this every day, within four to seven days, you’ll notice a distinct lessening of the neck and shoulder tension that you’re probably used to feeling.  Give yourself a quick check-up a couple times a week by pressing firmly into the back of your neck at the base of your skull.  If it’s not particularly tender, you’re keeping the tension down.  If you do find a trigger point that hurts –and sooner or later, you’re bound to—then massage it away. 

Just Relax

About the oldest formal technique for relieving stress is meditation.  Almost all of the world’s major religions have some practice of meditation, but non-religious meditation has been practiced throughout the world for health reasons, too.  Western science has been able to quantify and identify the beneficial effects of mediation, both physical and mental. 

While there are different techniques of meditation, usually focused on breathing or a repeated mantra, most kinds begin with a deliberate self-relaxation routine that is remarkably effective, even when it isn’t followed by a 20-minute meditation.  Instead of a chocolate bar, try this: 

Find a comfortable position. Just sit comfortably in a straight-backed chair, or even lie down on your back with your hands palm up.

Relax your muscles consciously, starting at the toes and working up through the body: ankles, calves, knees, thighs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands neck, head.  Think deliberately about relaxing these body parts, one at a time.  Some people find it helpful to say in their mind, “My toes, (or thigh, chest, etc.) are completely and utterly relaxed.”

As you are thinking your way up your relaxing body, breath deeply through your nose and exhale slowly, focusing on your body movements and sensations as you breath air in.  As you breath out, silently repeat your statement of relaxing your body parts. 

With either the self-massage or the focused relaxation, remember that your skill with these techniques, and hence, their effectiveness and your overall health, will improve the more that you do it.  

Whereas if you keep opting for the comfort snack, that candy bar or bag of chips, you’ll probably feel crummy again 20 minutes after the little pick-me-up, and over the long haul, the extra empty calories can only drag you down.


If you're dealing with stress and would like help managing what you eat, let us know.  We provide comprehensive, healthy eating plans along with the accountability that many need.  Call 239-593-0663 to set an appointment. 

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