You were up all night because the baby wouldn't stop crying, your boss has been on your case all day for something that isn't your fault, and you've just found out that the peculiar noise your car has been making will cost you hundreds of pounds in repairs. Gahhhhh!!
What you want...no, NEED...is a nice big chocolate bar (maybe two!), and you know you'll feel better for having it, at least in the short term, but why? Your logical brain knows that you tucking into a sugary, fatty treat won't calm the baby, placate the boss or pay for the car, so why do you have such an overwhelming desire for it, as if it were the answer to your woes?
What you're actually experiencing here is an age-old bio-chemical response to stress, a response that served us very well in our distant past but not so well in modern civilisation.
Briefly, when the brain perceives a "threat" (something that puts us under stress), it releases hormones that turn our cells from fat-burning to fat-storing mode and simultaneously signals us to seek out calorie-dense food so that we can lay down fat reserves.
This process would have helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive through periods of food shortage or protracted hunting episodes and was a valuable adaptation for the type of challenges they faced, but for many of us in the modern world, constantly surrounded as we are by highly palatable and highly caloried foods and dealing with entirely different challenges, it's anything but helpful.
A chocolate bar or a doughnut or a slice of pizza won't solve your issues, but on a chemical level your brain is telling you exactly the opposite, hence those treats being well nigh irresistible when you're under stress.
Of course, if the stress is a passing thing and you can quickly return to normal, little damage will be done to your waistline. Where it becomes a problem is for those in a chronically-stressed state, and that's when the pounds can really pile on.
So what can you do if you find yourself stress-eating?
One of the best ways to counter it is exercise. Even just a brisk walk for 20 minutes or so will release "happy" hormones that offset the effects of the stress-related hormones thereby lifting your mood and making you less likely to reach for a high-calorie snack.
You could also practice mindful-eating techniques to learn to distinguish between stress-triggered eating and genuine hunger (article link). Yoga, meditation and deep-breathing are all good tools for tackling stress as well. Other useful ideas are covered in my blog: Switch from Negative to Positive.
David Bowie, owner of Healthy Fit Life, is a mobile personal trainer and sports massage therapist working in the Farnham and Camberley area.