Guess how much of the overeating people do is triggered by emotions—10%? 25%? Actually, it’s about 75%, experts estimate. Considering how stressed out people today tend to feel, it’s no wonder so many Americans are overweight!
Though macaroni and cheese, cake and ice cream, chips and other “comfort foods” may provide a temporary sense of relief from stress, in the long run, overindulging only makes you feel worse about yourself and your situation…and over time, the extra weight it brings can do serious damage to your health.
Fortunately, there are many enjoyable and effective ways to calm down that have nothing to do with eating, said psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. So whenever you feel tempted to eat, first ask yourself whether you are truly physically hungry. If the honest answer is no, try one of these tactics instead.
Do-anywhere techniques for when you’re out and about…
Adopt a “blanket substitute.” You know Linus from the comic strip Peanuts? He uses his beloved blanket as a source of comfort whenever he feels overwhelmed or anxious. Of course, you’re not going to drag a blankie around, but you can carry a small object—a smooth stone, a silk handkerchief—in your pocket or purse. When you feel the urge to eat emotionally, close your eyes for a moment and rub your fingers across the object, finding comfort in its familiar feel. This will help you not reach for food right away…and there’s a good chance that the impulse to eat will pass.
Take a few cleansing breaths. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose…hold for a few seconds…then purse your lips and exhale through your mouth in short bursts as you imagine all your toxic thoughts or worries falling into a heap on the floor. This technique has been proven to calm the body and mind, Dr. Albers said.
Go for a stroll. This is not a power walk, and it isn’t about burning calories or trying to outpace your cravings. Rather, it’s a deliberate opportunity to notice and enjoy the scenery…the people…the sounds…the scents all around you. As you take time to fully experience the sensations evoked by your surroundings, thoughts of food will naturally be forgotten (provided you’re not strolling past a row of restaurants, of course!). Though a 20-minute walk is ideal for curbing cravings, research indicates, even a quick five-minute stroll should do the trick.
At-home tactics that can keep you from raiding the fridge…
Clean house. It doesn’t matter what you clean—the garage, the attic, your office, a closet (though the kitchen would not be your best bet)—because your actual goal is to scrub away stress. Try cleaning for 10 minutes, then see whether the urge to nosh has abated, Dr. Albers suggested…if it hasn’t, scrub for another three minutes. Bonus: When you’re done, your well-deserved sense of accomplishment will help keep comfort food cravings at bay.
Have a snooze. Sleep-deprived people tend to eat more, probably in an attempt to increase energy levels. Ask yourself whether what your body really needs is a rejuvenating rest, and if the answer is yes, allow yourself a 30-minute nap. When you get up, chances are good that you’ll no longer feel the immediate need to eat.
Take up a hobby that uses your hands. Whittling, knitting, model building, painting and drawing are all good examples. Not only do they keep your hands busy so you can’t reach for food, the hand movements themselves relieve tension…and your brain is pleasantly engaged, so you’re not thinking about eating. Picking up your project-in-progress whenever the desire to comfort yourself with food arises will help you get through those moments of temptation…picking it up at other times will ease your stress level overall, reducing the likelihood of future food cravings. You’re not the arts-and-crafts type? Try squeezing bubble wrap instead—it’s surprisingly satisfying!
Weed your garden. Sure, digging in the dirt is good exercise…but more importantly, gardening helps to ease your mind, especially when you’re stressed or angry. Dr. Albers suggested, “As you pull up each weed, imagine that you’re pulling your negative or anxiety-provoking thoughts right out of your mind—and casting them away for good.”