If food is your stress fix, you’re not alone. Turning to a favorite snack or meal to fill emotional needs, reduce anxiety, and banish stress is a common practice.

Also known as emotional eating, stress-eating involves using food as a coping mechanism to help you feel better. Typically, it has nothing to do with physical hunger and everything to do with soothing or suppressing uncomfortable feelings and situations.

If you’re using food as a way to manage stress, you might be wondering: Why do I want to eat when I’m stressed? How can I stop stress-eating? What can I do to reduce stress instead of eating?

Read on to learn why you eat when stress is high and what you can do to change this beWhavior.

Feeling anxious, worried, and stressed isn’t a great combination, especially when your favorite snack food is nearby. When you eat to satisfy an emotional need, the relief it may provide is often temporary.

From a physiological standpoint, stress causes your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. When this happens, you may notice an increase in appetite and a desire to eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods.

However, this urge to eat isn’t the result of an empty stomach. Instead, it’s your brain telling you to eat so you can prepare for a potentially harmful situation. Typically, the stress subsides and cortisol levels return to normal.

Unfortunately, being bombarded with daily stressors and not finding ways to manage them can lead to high cortisol levels and overeating. An older 2001 study of 59 healthy women found that a psychophysiological response to stress may influence eating behavior and lead to weight gain.

Stress-eating is also associated with uncomfortable emotions.

If you’re experiencing sadness after a sudden loss or frustration after an argument with a loved one, for example, you may turn to a pastry, bag of potato chips, or candy bar to manage your emotions instead of dealing with them through communication.

And finally, stress-eating can happen in response to your environment — for example, the physical, mental, and emotional toll of living during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 8 out of 10 Americans feel that the current coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress. And 7 out of 10 Americans report higher stress levels in general since the pandemic started.

Putting an end to stress-eating might seem like a difficult task. That’s why it makes sense to tackle this habit in steps. Here are three ways to stop stress-eating in its tracks.

Know your stressors

Are you aware of your emotional eating triggers? Knowing the stressors that cause you to reach for food is the first step toward stopping stress-eating.

This begins with checking in with yourself. Before you head to the kitchen, ask yourself if you’re eating because you’re hungry or if it’s a response to something else.

Each time this happens, identify what you’re responding to and make a note of it. This can help you determine which situations trigger stress eating.

Remove common offenders from the kitchen

Most people can name the foods they reach for when responding to stress. After identifying your stressors, the next step is to remove go-to foods, especially if they’re high in sugar, heavily processed, or high in fat.

This involves eliminating the foods and snacks you reach for when stressed from your kitchen, your desk at work, or your car.

Replace them with more nutritious options that can help curb hunger when you’re feeling stressed.

Replace stress-eating with other activities

It’s not always possible to avoid food, though. When stress is high and food is nearby, you need to find other ways to take the edge off.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Take a 10- to 15-minute walk.
  • Practice 3 to 5 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing (aka belly breathing).
  • Drink a glass of water. Infuse it with your favorite fruit to add flavor.
  • Call or FaceTime with a friend or family member.
  • Write in a journal.
  • Flow into a few stress-busting yoga poses like Standing Forward Bend, Butterfly Pose, Triangle Pose, or Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose.
  • Grab an adult coloring book and your favorite crayons or pens and de-stress with creativity.
  • Listen to a guided meditation.
  • Read a chapter or two in a book or do a crossword puzzle.
  • Keep your hands busy with a hobby like knitting, drawing, building, or squeezing a stress ball.

Avoiding stress-eating in the moment requires quick-thinking and some go-to replacement behaviors.

A more long-term solution may be to prevent or at least minimize the stress than causes stress-eating in the first place. Here are some ways to incorporate stress-reducing activities into your day.

Move your body

Whether you lace up your running shoes and head outdoors or grab a yoga mat and flow into a tension-releasing sequence, moving your body through physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce stress.

Not only does exercise help your body feel better, but it also calms your mind.

According to the American Heart Association, reducing the harmful effects of stress through physical activity can also help decrease:

  • blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • obesity
  • chronic headaches
  • trouble sleeping

Practice mindfulness meditation

The daily practice of mindfulness meditation, relaxation, and deep breathing exercises can help prevent stress before it happens, according to the APA.

Start by carving out 15 minutes each day to devote to one or more of these activities. Each week, add 5 minutes to your routine until you hit 30 minutes.

Seek out social support

Friends, family, coworkers, and other sources of social support can help buffer the adverse effects of stress. If you can’t do an in-person visit, make a phone call, attend an online meet-up, or schedule a FaceTime session.

Consider proactively scheduling events on your calendar. Make a twice-weekly date to walk with a friend. Sign up for a weekly support group or safely meet up for coffee.

The activity itself isn’t as important as a social connection.

Consider professional help

If lifestyle interventions aren’t helping or your stress levels are increasing, it might be time to get professional help.

Make an appointment to speak with your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health expert who can help you create a plan to manage stress.

Turning to food when you experience internal or external stress is common. When you stress-eat, however, any relief it provides is often temporary.

Emotional eating can affect your weight and overall health and well-being.

Avoiding stress altogether is impossible. That’s why it’s critical to find healthy ways to deal with daily stressors and anxiety that don’t involve stress eating.

However, if implementing new behaviors doesn’t provide stress relief, consider talking with your doctor. They can determine if a referral to a mental health expert may help.