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Stress and Binge Eating | How Your Mind Rationalizes Overeating

Can stress cause weight gain or is it your mind that plays tricks to indulge you in overeating and binge eating? Let’s explore!

It is not only clinically diagnosed depression patients who are experiencing unusual food cravings but many people who are facing difficult circumstances in their lives and passing through a painful phase also have experienced that they are inclined towards overeating and weight gain. In this article, we are going to focus on the stress and binge eating.

We are not here to talk about anti-depressants medicines, because it is now proven that some of these meds do contribute to weight gain. But what about the people who don’t take medicines at all? What tricks mind play with you that you can’t stop eating?

Food is the only source of happiness in my life!

“Food is the only thing making me happy at this moment”.

“I am already passing through a tough phase. I shouldn’t deprive myself of this only source of happiness”.

“I’ll automatically stop overeating once this depressive phase will pass”.

“What else do I have in my life other than this chocolate to make me happy?”

“Self-control is possible only for people who are in the right state of mind. And I am having enough pain in my life right now. So, my binge eating is justified.”

Does that sound like you? Then you are not alone. When you are facing a painful situation, loneliness, or passing through any bad phases in your life, your brain reduces the production of Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins which people refer to as “happiness hormones”, and elevates the production of stress hormones like Cortisol, Epinephrine, and Norepinephrine. (Cortisol also fuels the food cravings).  When you eat good food or get involved in any addiction, your mind either reduces the stress hormones for a short period of time by keeping you distracted or generates the happiness hormones for that short window of time.

In short, the mind basically craves to either increase the production of happiness hormones or reduce the stress hormones’ secretion and will do anything to feel relieved, even for a short temporary moment. It can be any addiction, such as drinking, smoking, drugs, and overeating. Some people tend to even do binge-watching, endlessly scrolling through social media profiles, sleeping for unusually long hours, or engaging in compulsive sexual behavior. All these things are just coping mechanism-to reduce stress hormones and/or increase the production of happiness hormones. When it comes to food, it is proven that good food does generate happy hormones. That’s why your mind is indulging you to eat more.

Why should I compromise my happiness at the present moment?

Delayed gratification means you compromise something small in short term to get a bigger benefit in the long run. For example, you have one hour and the option to either study for your upcoming exam or watch your favorite Netflix show. If you watch the show, you get the enjoyment right now. But if you sacrifice your current (instant) enjoyment and choose to study, you get a good score in the exam, you might get scholarships or a great job in the future.

But when you are passing through a difficult phase, it is common to feel despair and pessimism. You feel like dementors (Harry Potter reference!) are flying around you and you will never be happy again. In such a gloomy time, it is very challenging to convince the mind about delayed gratification. Your mind tells you that this happiness-the food (or any addiction) you are having right now is the guaranteed happiness. No one is going to take it from me. And why should you sacrifice it-for which delayed happiness?

“I am not going to lose lots of pounds, or my health is not going to get dramatically improved if I don’t eat this pizza.”

“My problems in life are not going to magically disappear if I don’t eat this ice-cream.”

 “At least I have a confirmed source of joy at this moment and I must not forgo it for any future uncertain happiness”.  

So, in the example above, Netflix show vs. studies, your mind tells you, “My current happiness of watching my favorite show is assured and it is 100% in my hand. But the exams, even if I study, there is no guarantee that I will get a job in such economic crises, or the test papers will cover the same questions, or this is all so theoretical and not going to help me in real life anyways, etc.”

Your mind tricks you into thinking that the current happiness (addiction) is the only surety of the pleasure and you don’t need to sacrifice it for any uncertain good future.

If anything above sounds like you, let me tell you, it’s normal and happens with anyone. But that doesn’t mean you should be a puppet of your mind and compromise your health. Your mind will do anything to cope up with the pain and lift up the mood. It will prevent you from being rational and apply self-control by giving such excuses. It takes a very strong self-control to leave any addiction. But when you are in pain, and dealing with a stressful situation, expecting your mind to be rational and assertive seems infeasible. But you can certainly not let your craving destroy your health and shape. That will lead you to another dark spiral of self-hatred and body-shaming.

So, what can you do to control your food cravings and overeating (or any addition) and get back on track? We will discuss that in the part-2 of this article, with some experts’ opinions and practical tips to cope with stress and binge eating. We will publish it in the upcoming weeks, so stayed tuned!  

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