by Dr Jelena Nesic
It’s likely that all of us remember occasions when we have mindlessly reached out for the fridge or the cookie jar at the times of stress. But, although we may have subsequently tried to justify this to ourselves by giving it a harmless enough label ‘comfort eating’, there is nothing comforting about consuming lots of unhealthy food – in fact, more often than not, we ended up feeling worse off as a result……often bloated and unhappy.
So, why do we engage in this and other unhealthy or addictive behaviours when we’re feeling stressed, tired or tense? It has been known for a long time that stress plays an important role in the initiation and maintenance of a variety of ‘reward-seeking’ or addictive behaviours. Seems obvious from experience, but it is only over the last few decades that researchers have started to explore the neurocognitive mechanisms behind these responses.
Giving in to cravings
It has been suggested that stress makes ‘rewards’, such as tasty snacks, more appealing and increases people’s desire for the pleasurable sensations they get from consuming them. This effect of stress is manifested not only by the increased desire to enjoy the taste of snack foods, but also by an increase in attentional bias for the sight or smell of food. According to this theory, if we walk through the snack isle at the supermarket when we’re stressed, we are much more likely to be drawn to a packet of our favourite crisps (or, in my case, the cheesy puffs!) than at times when we’re not feeling so stressed.
But seeing or wanting a particular food is not the same as actually stuffing our face with it. Surely we have control over whether we act on our impulses or not? Unfortunately as most of us who have succumbed to stress-eating know, we actually have very little control over it and don’t deserve the self-criticism and vicious cycles it can create.
Working memory and self-regulation
It has long been known that our ability to successfully perform tasks, make decisions and regulate our own behaviour relies on the cognitive system called the ‘working memory’. Working memory is best thought of as the brain system for temporarily storing and processing information. Unfortunately for us, the capacity of this system is limited as well as very unstable – a sudden distraction and the information held within it is lost! In order to keep focused on our goals and successfully control our impulses, we need to use a part of our cognitive resources to actively prevent such distraction from occurring. It is therefore not surprising that physical states, such as acute or chronic stress and tiredness, which have been shown to reduce the working memory capacity, also significantly reduce our ability to regulate our behaviour.
Based on the research into the role of working memory in self-regulation, an increasingly popular theory about the link between stress and food consumption has emerged. Professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues from Florida State University proposed that coping with emotional distress takes up these limited cognitive resources necessary for effective self-regulation, making us less able to monitor and control the ‘deviant’ behaviours, such as eating even though we are not experiencing true hunger.
How does this help us?
This research may be interesting, but is it of any practical use to us? Well, recognising the processes that underlie our behaviour is the first step towards being able to prevent this so-called ‘comfort eating’ from occurring.
So, the next time a chocolate bar seems to be calling out to you from the supermarket shelf, stop and evaluate the situation:
• Why do you crave for it so much?
• Is it the look of it or the thought of the taste that you find appealing?
• Does it seem more attractive because you are stressed?
• Will eating it really help make you feel better?
• Could you perhaps buy it another time, not now?
By engaging in this thought process, you will essentially take up some of your working memory resources which, until that point, were entirely occupied by other thoughts and re-allocate them towards controlling the impulse to give in to your craving. You may need a bit of practice or you may be successful the very first time you try to do it, but just be persistent – you will be surprised by your newly found ability to remain in control of your own actions.
De-Stress Your Life Comment
Alongside advice in The De-Stress Diet of calming measures to help relieve such stress incidences and eating patterns to help alleviate junk and sugar cravings, the realisation that self-control is not just ‘in the mind’ is very helpful to cultivate awareness of our actions – the first step towards change.