It’s the rare person who has never turned to food in times of great stress, be it the proverbial pint of ice cream after a bad break-up or some other soothing indulgence. But some people become too reliant on stress eating, to the extent that it becomes their only means of handling stressful situations. The occasional indulgence is harmless, but regular stress eating can have serious consequences. Many people who become chronic stress eaters find their physical health suffering because they are regularly eating too much and eating comparatively unhealthy foods. Other people become so dependent on food as stress relief that they eventually develop a full-blown eating disorder.
Stress Eating and Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder (BED) can develop out of stress eating, also called emotional eating. But people who struggle with BED have truly lost control over their eating. Their binge eating episodes become frequent, and they will often eat when they are not hungry and continue eating when they have become uncomfortably full. People who stress eat may still derive enjoyment from food even if they also feel guilty afterward, but those with BED are so out of control that they eat even though they no longer enjoy the experience.
Stress Eating Can Also Become a Cycle of Eating and Purging
Emotional eating also has the potential to develop into bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating episodes that are followed by attempts to purge calories by vomiting, exercising or using laxatives or diuretics. Bulimia often begins with emotional or binge eating episodes, after which an individual feels so much guilt and shame that she attempts to undo the episode by purging what she ate. Eventually, the cycle of out-of-control binge eating and attempts to regain control by purging take over the life of someone struggling with bulimia.
Some People Try to Control Their Stress With Restrictive Eating
Emotional and binge eating aren’t the only ways in which stress can influence eating behavior. Chronic stress can also contribute to anorexia nervosa, a restrictive eating disorder. Anorexia is characterized by extremely restricted eating, rapid weight loss and distorted body image. While many people, in varying degrees, turn to food for comfort when they are stressed, other people take the opposite approach. During times of high stress, some individuals find comfort in the feeling of control that they get from restricting what they eat. Stress is often the result of feeling that we have lost the ability to successfully manage various aspects of our lives, and some people feel that food and eating are one of the few things over which they can establish total control. Unfortunately, people who develop anorexia sacrifice all of their control to this disorder, which completely takes over their lives.
Eating Disorders Only Cause More Stress
Unfortunately, when people turn to disordered eating behaviors in an attempt to lower their stress levels, it usually has the opposite effect. People with binge eating disorder typically suffer from shame connected to their overeating and from low self-esteem connected to their weight gain, which raises stress and anxiety. People who struggle with anorexia and bulimia become constantly fixated on food, calories and weight, which is mentally exhausting. In addition, all kinds of disordered eating place great physical stress on the body, and poor physical health always has a negative impact on our ability to handle psychological stress.