Emotional Eating: Kicking the Habit
Let’s face it: sometimes the phone doesn't ring for a few minutes, and the radio is quiet. That's a break, right? If you are lucky, call volumes slow down enough for you to be able to heat up your food. You eat your lunch or dinner at your desks, often between calls, and you try to eat your meals as quickly as possible. It’s not exactly ideal, but someone needs to answer the phone.
Now let’s take into consideration your stress: call after call of listening to people yelling at you or pleading for help on their worst day ever. The ever-growing list of managerial expectations. And when was the last time you had some time off? The constant demands of the 9-1-1 dispatch career often lead to chronic stress—the kind of stress that builds up over time. And for some reason, you seem to constantly crave food—specifically, comfort foods that are high in sugars and fats.
You are not alone. Many of us turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward. And when we do, we tend to reach for junk food, sweets, and other comforting but unhealthy foods.
And there is never a shortage of junk food in the conveniently-located break room. You could just run over and grab a Snickers bar after getting off that stressful phone call, and get right back to work. And an extra special thanks to the person transferring to day shift, who brought in doughnuts and pizza to celebrate his last shift with you! Nom!
Before you know it, you’ve gained 20 pounds. Like many 9-1-1 dispatchers, it’s likely that you’ve fallen victim to emotional eating.
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—to fill emotional needs, rather than your stomach. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix your emotional problems; it usually just makes you feel worse. And it is especially prevalent in people with high-stress jobs. In times of emotional distress, people who suffer from emotional eating tend to turn to impulsive eating behaviors, such as quickly consuming food that is convenient without necessarily enjoying it.
Now, don’t get me wrong-occasionally using food as a quick pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when your first impulse is to reach for candy or cookies or [insert your guilty pleasure food here] whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, or even bored, you enter and get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where you never address the real issue. Something happens that triggers your stress response, and so you feel an overwhelming urge to eat. You reach for junk food-and you eat more than you know you should-making you feel guilty and powerless over food. So, you stress more. And the cycle continues.
But there is more than a psychological component that drives emotional eating; biochemistry also plays a pivotal role. The steroid hormone cortisol is typically released into the body in response to events such as waking up in the morning, exercising, or acute stress. This prepares the individual for the fight-or-flight response by flooding the body with glucose, which supplies a temporary but immediate energy source to muscles. In addition, cortisol inhibits the production of insulin to prevent the storage of glucose in cells, making it available for immediate use.
Ideally, a stressful situation will become resolved, and hormone levels will return to normal. But when stress is chronic—as is the case with the majority of 9-1-1 dispatchers that I have had the pleasure of meeting—hormone balance is derailed. Cortisol levels remain high, and the result is an overproduction of glucose, which, when combined with low insulin levels, leads to cells that are starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy! So, hunger signals are sent to the brain. But not just any food will do. Cortisol stimulates cravings for foods that are high in sugars and fats.
The result: overeating junk food leading to excessive weight gain. That’s the 10 or 20 or however many pounds you gained since starting your PSAP job that you can’t seem to lose.
The bottom line: unless the chronic stress of 9-1-1 dispatchers is addressed, emotional eating and its consequential health issues (including weight gain) will continue to be a problem.
The bad news is that you can’t control work-related stress—especially as a 9-1-1 dispatcher!
The good news is that you can control your stress response and defeat emotional eating!
I recommend these six steps as a guideline to take control of your stress and put an end to emotional eating:
1. Understand the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: emotional eating comes on suddenly, needs to be satisfied instantly, and is not satisfied with a full stomach. Specific food cravings come from the brain. Physical eating comes on gradually and is satisfied when your stomach is full. When you’re physically hungry, any food sounds good.
2. Keep an emotional eating diary. Every time you overeat, or feel compelled to reach for comfort food, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge to eat. Use an emotional eating diary to keep track; write down what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to cause stress, and how you felt before and after you ate. Find the connection between food and mood.
3. Find other ways to feed your cravings. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. Find alternatives to food to turn to for emotional fulfillment.
4. Pause when cravings hit. Can you put off eating for 5 minutes? Assert control over food and tell yourself to wait. Check in with yourself—what is going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it-which will help set you up for a different response next time.
5. Practice mindful eating. Emotional eating often consists of eating food mindlessly-you eat so fast, you often miss your body’s cues that you are no longer hungry. Practicing mindful eating results in focusing on the experience of eating. By slowing down and savoring your food, you’ll enjoy your food a lot more, and you’ll be less likely to overeat.
6. Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits. Make exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits a priority to help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.
If you have any additional questions about ways that team members of your PSAP can defeat emotional eating, please email Gin and Dr. Jess at StressLess@GinAndDrJess.com! We would love to help!
Dr. Jess Norris is a stress management scientist who specializes in improving the happiness and health of 9-1-1 dispatchers. She educates her clients about the importance of workplace stress, provides assessments of employee stress levels, and — with her business partner, Gin Carter — teaches proactive, practical, and proven stress management techniques. Dr. Jess has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia and over 15 years of experience as an analytical research scientist. In 2011, her life took some unexpected turns: her father unexpectedly passed away, making her the sole caregiver for her disabled mother, she gave birth to her first child, and she received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis – and these events all occurred within a year of each other. Her stress levels escalated to an all-time high, which exacerbated her MS symptoms and adversely affected her physical and mental health. She experienced mounting anxiety, depression, fatigue, muscle spasticity, and nerve issues.
Shortly after her MS diagnosis, when her symptoms were at their worst, she had a personal awakening: managing stress is essential to building resilience and achieving optimal health and wellness. Dr. Jess has dedicated nearly a decade to researching the science behind stress management tools and techniques, including mindfulness, meditation, aromatherapy, diet, and exercise. For more information, please visit DrJessNorris.com, GinAndDrJess.com, or email her at DrJess@DrJessNorris.com.
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