Want to know a dirty little secret? I once, and still on rare occasions, use food as a coping mechanism. It isn’t something I’m proud of, and then again, it isn’t really something anyone should be ashamed of either. Think about it. When you had a bad day at school, were you offered ice cream to ‘feel better’? Maybe it was a rough week so Mom cooked your favorite dinner on Saturday night, or you went out for pizza? To some degree, a large percentage of the population uses food as a coping device. But it’s a very short term solution because, while it is comforting to have that wonderful bowl of ice cream or mac and cheese, it doesn’t solve the problem or offer any real stress relief.
For a long time I didn’t realize that I used food as a coping ‘skill’ because I wasn’t severely overweight. Then I began journaling what I ate as well as keeping a regular journal. One day as I reviewed my food journal for the past three weeks (I had gained a few pounds) I realized I had eaten a good deal of junk food. When I compared the food journal with my life journal I saw the parallel. It had been a rough patch for me and my eating reflected my emotions. Unsure if you’re an emotional eater? Journal your food for a month AND write how you are feeling at the time. Be honest, no one is judging.
Here are a few questions to guide your journal entries:
- What is the source of your stress?
- What was your response to the stress?
- How did you feel emotionally as well as physically?
- What did you do to relieve your stress?
What to do if you’re an emotional eater
Examine your coping devices. Your stress journal will help you determine these skills. How productive or helpful are your coping mechanisms? Many people have unhealthy coping skills as these are taught to us unconsciously by others. And for many of us, overeating is an all too common coping device.
When dealing with stressful situations these four strategies work well:
- Avoid stress that is unnecessary
- Change the situation
- Change yourself to compensate for the stress
- Accept the stress
Avoidance This coping technique works well with those situations or people that we cannot otherwise deal with in another way. We have all experienced a time, or person, that no matter what we tried, when we were placed in the presence of the stressor, we could not cope. In these cases avoidance is best.
You can also reduce your stress through avoidance by learning to say no. Boundaries are a helpful guide to others in way we want to be treated. Limiting what you are obligated to do helps you to control your life and reduce your stress level.
Learn to say no to your self as well. Many of us have long ‘to do lists’. While these are helpful in many situations, if your list is so long that you never have the satisfaction of finishing the it, it simply adds to your stress. Keep your lists short.
Change your situation If your job is your stress factor avoidance will not work, and if you do use avoidance, neither will you! So to compensate you may have to find a new job or a way of modifying your current employment to avoid the stress. Perhaps your job can be done from home.
Some stress is just unavoidable and keeping everything to yourself isn’t good for you. Learn to express how your feel in a way that is respectful of the other person while addressing the problem so that a solution can be reached. Holding on to stress, and the negative feeling associated with it, will build up and you’ll end up being resentful. Additionally, if the source of your stress doesn’t know the situation there is no chance of change.
Adaptation has helped man and beast alike survive since the beginning of time. Life is never perfect, so instead of stressing over the imperfections look for the good. Ask yourself how important what you’re stressing over really is? To help bring it into perspective ask yourself if it will matter a month, or a year, from now.
Acceptance is sometimes the best alternative. There are some people and things that will never change or that have so few good points it’s hard to find even one, and the only way to deal with it is to accept them, or it. If this is your situation, limit the time you spend in the situation or with the person. And view it as an opportunity to improve yourself.
In part two we’ll discuss healthy alternative for dealing with stress and how to make them part of your life.