Why Anxiety Can Make You Eat—And What You Can Do About It

There’s a biological reason those cookies just disappeared.
PHOTO: Getty Images

You know the scene: Stress feels like it’s bubbling over, and suddenly where there was once a full bag of chips, there are now just a few crumbs.

This unconscious hand-to-mouth eating has a biological explanation: When you’re anxious, your brain tends to focus on an immediate reward (a tasty bite), while forgetting a long-term goal (like losing weight).

At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol could be messing up your hunger signals, so you think you need to eat, even when you don’t. Unfortunately, the comfort foods you crave during those situations may not provide real comfort. In one University of Minnesota study, researchers found that reaching for chocolate, ice cream, and cookies was no more of a mood booster than abstaining from them.

The temporary distraction and the little bit of pleasure that comes with it can leave you with a big letdown when they’re over. The first way to end the stress/eat cycle is to acknowledge that you’re eating because you’re anxious, says Dr. Sofia Rydin-Gray, Ph.D., behavioral health director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Centre.

"Once you do that, try to figure out the source of that anxiety," she says. "Knowing why you're reaching for something to munch on can help you make a different choice."

Then, figure out a calming ritual you can pull out in tense times. Maybe that's sitting quietly for five minutes a day, going for a run after work, or spending time outside. Writing down your feelings is another tool that helps stress eaters unpack their emotions instead of stuffing them down with food. Open your journal. Rely on your routine.

And those chips may just stay in the bagor the supermarketnext time.

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This article originally appeared on WomensDay.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

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