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Nutrition

Stress and Sugar Addiction - How to Overcome Your Stressed Out Sugar Cravings

stress eating sugar
by megan dahlman
April 19, 2022

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Here’s the situation:

you’re stressed out to the max and feeling crazy overwhelmed. And in that moment, all you want is something sweet. Pretty soon, you’ve downed several handfuls of cookies and you’re feeling miserable and disappointed in yourself. Now, listen - there’s an actual scientific reason for why you’re reaching for sugar in those stressful situations, and I’m going to tell what that is and what you can do about it, starting today.

A little background...

I have a friend named Anna that is currently dealing with a very difficult family member. In fact, it’s her mom. Her mom is extremely overbearing, narcissistic, controlling, and has also modeled over the years a really bad food relationship for Anna. So not only has Anna been dealing with a very emotionally volatile mom...who therapists are saying probably has personality disorder... but she’s also lived her entire life in a food environment that is beyond unhealthy. So needless to say, food is a big challenge for Anna.

But right now, Anna told me that for some reason whenever she has to deal with her mom in person or dig into the emotional effect that she has on her with a therapist, it triggers a significant amount of stress. And sometimes, she will literally feel shaky, nauseous, and lightheaded.

And in these situations, she almost always reaches for something sugary. Something sweet...whether that’s a bag of candy, a homemade cookie, or even a coffee drink from Starbucks.

This habit is soooo frustrating for Anna because she feels like she’s repeating some of those same behaviors that her mom has, but it’s also making her physically awful and downright out of control.

Does this ever happen to you?

  • Maybe it’s not a relationship issue...maybe you’re just living with tiny people that are clinging to your body all day long and extremely needy...or you find yourself in a handful of other stressful scenarios. The list might be long.

So, what’s the solution? How can you, and how can Anna, stop reaching for sugar every time you feel stressed out??

Today, I want to show you WHY you’re turning to sugar in stressful situations. I want you to know why this is happening. And by understanding why this is happening, you’re going to be able to get a better handle on this habit and even overcome it, so you no longer find yourself stress-eating sugar.

I’m going to share with you exactly what I explained to Anna and how I walked her through overcoming this struggle.

Why does sugar works in stressful situations?

When you’re stressed it triggers your Fight or flight response (CNS) and adrenaline (and cortisol). Everything is amped up and on high alert. Your nerves are buzzing (can lead to feeling shaky, nauseous, even lightheaded)

In that moment, you’re wanting to get rid of that feeling... you want to feel calm, at peace, and to feel like everything is ok. It doesn’t feel comfortable to be in the fight or flight response!!

Sugar triggers the calming, feel-good neurochemicals in your brain, like dopamine. When dopamine is released, you experience a sense of happiness and delight. Some people can even describe the stress-eating experience as, "It helps me escape and makes me momentarily happy in the middle of my problems." Dopamine calms the nervous system.

Anna was able to experience a dopamine hit that helps tamp down the fight or flight response. In essence, it pulled her back off the ledge, and she felt better.

Now, here’s problem:

  • The first time you turn to food or a drink when you’re stressed out, it isn’t a big deal. And it’s still not a big deal if you have something sweet in a stressful situation every now and then.
  • The problem happens when you do this often, because that dopamine pathway gets created - (stress + sugar = happy)
  • Larger doses needed - This behavior breeds and grows, and each time you will need a larger dose (the entire bag of cookies, not just two… two grande coffee drinks a day, not just one small one in the morning) in order to experience the same effects.
  • Pretty soon your consumption habits are completely out of control and have morphed into a monster that feels impossible to tame.

The good news is that you can tame this beast!

What you can do to start overcoming this reaction

(I say “start” because this won’t solve itself overnight. You’re dealing with some pretty strong neural pathways that need to be patiently rewired):

The most important thing for you to do is to go on the offense - Be ready for the things that trigger these stress responses so that you can utilize better, healthier coping tactics. For Anna, it was every time her mom became a topic of conversation

What specific situations trigger that feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out? Write these down.

Take a look at each of the stress triggers you wrote down and see if anything can be changed.

  • Your messy house might be a trigger, so by just going on the offense and taking initiative to clean one main room each day, your stress triggers are more easily dealt with

Write down at least three nonfood/beverage solutions to deal with your stress triggers.

  • You can get the SAME dopamine experience from other things.
  • It won’t feel very effective at first. Remember, those sugar neural pathways are STRONG.
  • But over time, you can create a new path. The sugar pathway will feel weak and ineffective, and the new coping mechanism will be the stronger one.
  • Listening to music, going for a walk, taking a bath, lighting a candle, taking a hot shower, drinking coffee

Examples

Let me give you some examples for how you can put this into action:

  • Let’s say that work right now is super stressful, and to get through it, if you’ve been snacking on the candy dish all day long. So, start noticing the exact things that trigger your stress, be aware of your fight or flight response kicking in, and then decide to go for a walk around the block instead of reaching for the candy.
  • Or maybe the kids have been extra needy today and you’re husband is out of town, so you’re single-parenting for a couple days. Bathtime and bedtime is a nightmare and by the time you finally get all the kids in bed, you’re ready to just hide on the couch with a pint of ice cream. Instead, you notice that bedtime is always stressful for you, so you plan to light some candles, run a hot bath, and listen to music after they go down.

Big Takeaways

I know it might feel like sugar has a stronghold on you when you’re stressed out, but it should be helpful to know that a lot of that is physiological. And by simply practicing different coping strategies to get that similar dopamine release in those moments, you’ll be able to rewire that pathway and no long find yourself turning to sugar when you’re stressed.

What I want you to do now is go download my free Guide to Overcoming Stress Eating and Drinking. It’s an incredible resource that will walk you through all of this, plus it comes with a worksheet to help you work through your triggers and coping mechanisms. Super helpful.

Once again, if stress eating and sugar is a big struggle for you, go grab your free copy of the stress eating guide with the worksheet at vigeofit.com/stress-eating.

Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
Read More About Megan
Hi! I’m Megan.
Self-Care Simplified is for Christian moms that want to be equipped and encouraged to take simple steps towards the healthy life you want for yourself and the people you love.
Be sure to subscribe to Self-Care Simplified wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.
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Read More About Megan
Hi! I’m Megan.
take the quiz
Self-Care Simplified is for Christian moms that want to be equipped and encouraged to take simple steps towards the healthy life you want for yourself and the people you love.
Be sure to subscribe to Self-Care Simplified wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.
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