Hijacked by Your Brain

How to free yourself when stress takes over

How to Eat Less This Holiday Season

Recognizing overeating is the result of stress is the secret to eating less.

Thanksgiving is upon us and the holiday season of overeating is about to begin. It will continue for at least two months through the Super Bowl, and for many of us another two months more through March Madness or all the way until the Summer swimsuit dilemma (can I really put that on looking like this?). That could be an entire half of a year to contend with a really tough challenge: how to handle stress-related overeating.

For many of us, eating more than we should is a constant concern, not just a seasonal problem. But there’s no doubt that holidays like Thanksgiving can up the ante so that you’re not just indulging a bit too much but you want to eat the entire pie!

And events like a big game can become the occasion for a binge of chips and dip, sodas, popcorn, pizza, endless grinder sandwiches, and an onslaught of sweets (Sorry, didn't mean to make you hungry!)

Is there any solution to this other than shutting yourself in your room, unplugging the TV, and waiting for the culinary dust to settle sometime in mid-2014?

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We’re approaching this significant dilemma with humor in order to engage your creativity, but not in any way to discount or downplay the emotional difficulties, stress, and health risks that can be associated with overeating. This is a genuinely serious matter that requires correspondingly serious thought and action. There are many excellent programs and methods based on scientific evidence—and not just unsubstantiated claims or theories—for understanding and overcoming compulsive eating, and these can be an essential source of crucial knowledge, skills, and support.

What we want to highlight is that evidence-based approaches to dealing with excessive eating all share a common key idea despite their many differences in specific tactics and advice.

The core idea is that overeating is both the result and cause of stress. This is not always highlighted when a program emphasizes one or several specific approaches such as nutrition, exercise, or social support. However, in order to wisely use scientific information about healthy foods or exercise, and supportive relationships, you have to be able to think clearly enough to actually apply that information to your day-in and day-out lifestyle.

When your waistline starts to expand through Holiday parties where you treated the hors d'oeuvres table like your last meal, you’re doing this because you feel stressed, and the more you do it the more stressed you feel. When you keep eating candy like they will never make another piece of chocolate and you just don't know why, again, your choices have been hijacked by a very important part of your brain that has gotten out of control and now is in over-drive. When confronted with the temptation of tasty foods (or the barrage of advertisements promoting them) and our bodies’ natural need to take in more fuel to stay warm in the colder months, an ancient part of our brain begins to turn on a little easier. That’s the part of the brain that protects us by keeping us alert to danger and ready to deal with problems—the alarm (also known as the amygdala, in the inner “emotional” center of the brain).

Overeating occurs when the alarm in our brain takes control and hijacks our choices. Here are the self-statements we make when we’re only listening to the alarm in our brain:

“I can’t stop myself.”

“I HAVE TO HAVE THIS!”

“I’ll just have one more.”

“I deserve this after the day/week/month I’m having!”

“I just want to feel better and this is the only/fastest way to do that, even if I’ll feel worse afterward.”

What can you do to regain control of your choices without resorting to extreme (and ineffective) tactics such as taking a vow of total abstinence? If the problem is not eating per se but alarm-driven eating then the most important step you can take toward a real solution is to shift your focus off of eating—temporarily—long enough to re-focus yourself on turning down the alarm in your brain.

Re-setting the brain’s alarm begins with a re-focusing on what you truly value in your life and who you are as a person. You’re not an over-eater, that’s a trap that you’re caught in, but not who you are. You may value eating, but even if that is a passion for you there are deeper values that underlie that passion—values like sharing joy with people who are important to you, savoring every moment, having fun, knowing the difference between quality and quantity, and experiencing novelty and creativity. These are the values that make eating more than just a matter of physical survival, and they are what get lost or left behind when eating becomes compulsively controlled by the brain’s alarm.

When you focus off of eating and step back and re-orient yourself to what you really value in life, you’re drawing on knowledge that can be accessed by another area in the “emotional” brain, the filing center (or technically, the hippocampus). This interrupts the alarm’s demands for mindless automatic reactions and reminds you that you do actually have a choice other than simply continuing to eat compulsively. This also enables you to be more alert to recognizing the cues that trigger you into an alarm state of craving food, so that you can avoid or prepare for those cues instead of just walking blindly back into the maelstrom of partying and the barrage of media and social pressures to eat.

You’re also activating the crucial part of the brain that re-sets the alarm, your thinking center (or technically, the middle part of the prefrontal cortex). By stepping back and thinking about what's most important, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to restore a sense of calm confidence when drawn toward eating. You won’t necessarily stop feeling hungry or attracted to appealing foods, but you will be able to deal with those challenges based on what you value and not just what you feel compelled to do. Instead of using eating as a way to turn down the alarm (reduce feelings of stress, which often become confused with feeling hungry) you’ll be getting your brain’s thinking center back in gear so that you can thinking clearly about how much and what kind of food will make your holidays precious.

Does this approach work flawlessly the first time you try it and every time thereafter? Of course not. Does it take dedicated practice to prepare yourself before you’re on the verge or in the midst of an eating binge? Of course it does. Will it work even if your first efforts seem to be failures? Definitely, but only if you are willing to make the challenge one of handling stress (reactions) instead of only trying to stop yourself from over-eating.

Hijacked by Your Brain blogs are co-authored with Jon Wortmann. Visit our website at www.hijackedbyyourbrain.com. You can follow us on facebook or join us on twitter @hijackedbook.

Julian Ford, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

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