Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Have you ever seen people in movies or on TV diving into a tub of ice cream when they’re heartbroken or stressed? Have you ever been that person? Some people think that this common human experience looks like weakness or failure, but what that experience really means is that our bodies want the best for us, and that they are always trying to soothe and protect us.
See, hunger when you’re stressed is not a bad thing. It is a signal that your body is trying to look after you. When you’re low on energy, or feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed, your body perceives that hard times or scarce times might be coming, and it wants to equip you with energy to face that hard time. To achieve that, your body makes more ghrelin when times get tough, a hormone that makes you feel calmer and happier, and also powerfully signals you to eat (Abizaid, 20198; Schellekens et al, 2012).
Ghrelin doesn’t make you want just any old food; during times of stress, it urges us to look for rich, delicious, calorie-dense foods, to eat more of those than we might normally want, and to protect the energy those foods give us by making it into fat that can be stored. Stress-induced hunger and food cravings are not you being bad or undisciplined or wrong; they’re your body asking you to care for yourself. They’re your body setting you up to survive and thrive in a world that can be tough.
All people’s bodies have always done this, and they probably always will. No, we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore, foraging for seasonal foods and occasionally binging on protein after a successful hunt that helps us ride out the lean times, when there’s less food available. But that doesn’t mean the world isn’t still stressful, and our bodies still respond to stress in a way that is geared to keep us from starving: “Eat!” our bodies say when we’re stressed, “Build up an energy store! Hard times are here!”
The difference is, now we know what our bodies are doing, and we know whether we’re actually going to starve or not. We can move from anxiously storing up reserves to prepare for scarcity that never actually comes, to finding ways of meeting what is often really a need for soothing and self-care. Does that mean you shouldn’t eat when you’re stressed? Maybe; maybe not. The basic guideline is awareness.
Next time you feel stressed and decide you need to munch something, check in with how you’re seeing and responding to the world; tune in to how you’re feeling. Are you revved up, feeling you need to defend yourself, fight something, or run away? Are you shut down? Feeling the need to hide from a world that sometimes feels overwhelming? Now take 5 deep breaths. It’s such a simple tool, but it modifies the body’s response to stress so that you can see more clearly what you really need. Just 5 deep, aware breaths let your body know that you’re ready to partner with it, listen to it, and let it help you be ok.
When we move through the universal, human experience of stress and hunger with awareness and an attitude of self-care, we transform the stress-hunger experience into information we can use to guide us to what we need. Over time, this practice has a powerful impact on eating patterns, so that instead of being a source of conflict and failure, your appetite can become a friendly voice, there to guide you with wisdom about your emotional and nutritional needs.
Listen with kindness to your hunger. It has so much to tell you.