I use to sneak into the kitchen at my office, open the cabinets and devour leftover snacks in between clients, paperwork and meetings. Ironically, the work of running a treatment program for adults with binge-eating disorder frequently led me to turn to food to cope with my stress.
If you’re a stress eater like myself, rest assured, you’re not alone. Stress eating is quite common among working individuals. Approximately 40% of adults report an increase in their food consumption when stressed.
If you’ve trained your brain to immediately send you the “eat” signal the moment it detects physiological markers of stress in the body or stress thoughts in your mind, then changing this response pattern may feel nearly impossible.
But I assure you, if I can break this unhelpful way of coping with my stress, then so can you! You don’t have to stay stuck in the stress-eating cycle.
Here are six ways to reduce your stress eating in the office, and actually manage your stress in more helpful and effective ways.
1. Create Meditation Endcaps
Meditation is an essential stress-management skill to integrate into your daily life, especially if you are a stress eater. That’s because meditation has been found to enlarge the prefrontal cortex, shrink the amygdala and enhance high-amplitude gamma brainwave activity, leading to greater emotional control and states of increased awareness and bliss. A systemic review of 14 studies found that mindful meditation effectively reduces emotional eating and binge eating in individuals engaging in these behaviors.
I personally have found meditation to serve as great endcaps to my day, and I encourage you to try the same. Spend 5-20 minutes in the morning before you start the work day and then again in the evening after you get home from work to help you unwind.
If you’re someone who has tried meditation before and felt you couldn’t do it right because your mind was too busy, then that’s all the more reason why you should meditate. The practice of meditation is designed to help you strengthen your awareness muscle along with your ability to still the chatter of the mind and become a more mindful observer of your thoughts and inner experience. This is especially valuable for stress eaters, because what causes stress is not the actual events going on at work but rather the thoughts you have about yourself and your work. The more you can master your mind and thoughts, the better you’ll be able to avoid stress-thinking that can lead to stress-eating.
2. Use Choice Architecture to Intentionally Set Up Your Space
Choice architecture is the concept of intentionally designing your environment to make the easy choices the ideal choices. Take inventory of your work space and notice what eating cues are present. Is there a bowl of chocolate on the reception table? Do your coworkers leaved donuts and cakes in the staff room? Do you stack your mini-fridge with soda and cold brews?
Often times stress eaters are impulsive eaters, meaning if you are feeling stressed and see food, then your unconscious brain will automatically initiate your eating those things without consulting your conscious and rational brain first to determine if you actually are hungry.
If you can remove the visual eating cues or replace them with more ideal options, then you’ll minimize your vulnerability to give into temptations and set yourself up to make better choices. For example, you can stock the fridge with water, fresh fruit and chopped veggies. Swap the candy bowls for a bowl of raw nuts, or remove it altogether. Get creative with your space and have fun setting yourself up for success!
3. Take Regular Movement Breaks
One of the common challenges faced in a traditional workplace is the sedentary nature of working at a desk and staring at a screen for hours and hours a day. Sitting that much is unnatural for the human body, which is meant to move. You may have noticed that when you’re most stressed, you can feel it in your body, perhaps as a racing heart, tension in your muscles, and/or headaches and pains. Eating doesn’t do anything to make these physiological symptoms of stress subside, but movement does. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can reduce your body’s fight-or-flight stress response, helping you to feel more ease and comfort.
Additionally, movement can help release endorphins which can improve your mood and help you feel better regardless of the amount of stress you’re facing. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend an hour vigorously exercising each day in order to experience the benefits of physical activity. Even taking 10-minute walking or stretch breaks throughout the day can make a noticeable difference. When in doubt, get up, get outside and get moving!
4. Ask for Support When You’re Juggling Too Much
One of the most common sources of stress is having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Your responsibilities at work are likely compounded by your responsibilities at home with your partner, children and pets. The reality is that you may just be taking on too much. And while you can probably buckle down and get it done, it likely will take a significant toll on your mental and physical well-being.
I learned this lesson the hard way. When my career was really starting to take off as a psychotherapist running a behavioral health program at a fitness and wellness center, I was working 4 other jobs. I took pride in being busy, and wore my busyness as badge of honor. But the toll the stress was taking on my body soon became undeniable, and I had to make some big changes. I resigned from 3 of the jobs, cut back my hours at my new role, and hired a part-time employee to help me manage the influx of weekly client sessions. What a difference it made!
Be honest with yourself—are you trying to do too much? How much longer can you really sustain this level of work? Brainstorm ways that you can delegate tasks to others, give back responsibilities you’ve taken on that don’t actually belong to you, and ask your team for support when you need it (whether at work or home). When in doubt, bring in outside help! Your mental sanity and physical health is worth it.
5. Schedule Play & Relaxation Appointments Throughout The Week
In the book Supe Genes, Deepok Chopra suggests that every person should aim to make time for three things a day: play time, down time and in time. His argument is that most people spend the majority of their time working and don’t prioritize other activities to create balance, rest and genuine pleasure (outside of eating).
Many of the clients I work with tell me that the only source of pleasure and enjoyment in their day comes from eating. If that’s true for you too, then that’s a problem you should address immediately. Life is not meant to be “only work and no play.” Play and fun need to be experiences that you have regularly, and not just from eating. What else can you do that is enjoyable for you? Perhaps it’s taking a sunset stroll, doing an exercise class, playing games, joining a community group, making music or working on an art project.
Likewise, your body also needs adequate rest and relaxation. Think of your body like a bank account. If you spend all the money you have, you can’t keep spending more money until you allow time to accrue more money. Your energy is the same. If you keep using it all up without giving yourself time to recharge, you’re eventually going to run out, and increased stress only further depletes your body’s energy. You need time to relax.
Come up with a list of ways that you enjoy to have fun and relax, and then schedule these activities in your planner throughout the week. View them like a work meeting or doctor’s appointment that you can’t cancel and have to attend, except this is a meeting with you that will help you reduce your stress and feel better.
6. Use Emotional Freedom Technique To Lower Stress
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping, is one of my favorite stress-management techniques. This self-help process involves tapping on acupressure points on the face and body while speaking cognitive processes out loud that focus on the issue causing you stress or intense emotions. It is believed that EFT addresses the imbalances within a person’s energy system, as well as the energetic influence of thoughts, beliefs and emotions in the body.
A study found that EFT lowered cortisol levels, aka the stress hormone, in participants by 24% in a single one-hour tapping session. I teach tapping to all of my clients, so that they can empower themselves to use this process when they feel stressed instead of eating. While eating can often contribute to the stress load, tapping effectively reduces the body’s physiological stress load, leaving one feeling lighter, calmer and more relaxed. I passionately believe that EFT is a self-help too any stress eater must learn and have in their stress-management toolbox.
When I started to implement the changes above, I swapped sneaking into the kitchen for sweets with sneaking outside to meditate. I gave myself permission to leave the office on time and go catch the sunset rather than stay at the office until after the sun went down. And I started to value my mental health and well-being over my workaholism.
Now, when the cookie craving creeps up at work, I am equipped with a variety of stress-management techniques that actually work on a mental and physiological level. I encourage you to empower yourself to execute these six steps and experience the same benefits in your own life.