The Stress-Eating Cycle: Why you get sucked in and how to get out!

So you’ve committed (and recommitted) to sticking to your healthy eating plan.

But . . .

You feel stressed (bored, overwhelmed, tired), so . . .

You eat a donut (a cupcake, a cookie) or two . . . or twelve.

You feel relief . . . for a while.

The relief wears off and regret sets in.

The regret triggers more stress and . . . you reach for those darn comfort foods again!

Why did it happen?

I mean . . .

. . . you knew what you had planned to eat that day.

. . . you promised yourself yesterday that today would be the day you finally stick to your plan.

. . . you really, really, REALLY want to achieve your goal.

So, why did incredible, smart, successful you stumble again?

Here it comes.

I’m about to solve the mystery for you . . .

It was because you were trying to avoid pain and/or to gain pleasure.

 Here’s the deal. People often make choices for one of two reasons:

  • To avoid pain (such as stress)
  • To gain pleasure (such as eating)

Let’s take a look at how this pain/pleasure principle applies to the stress-eating cycle:


Here are some examples of stress that create emotional pain:

  • Financial difficulties
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Breakup of a relationship
  • Being single but wanting to be in a relationship
  • Boredom

Hold the phone! Is boredom a stressor?


According to a study published in the journal Experimental Brain Research, the measurements of people’s heart rates, hormonal levels, and other factors, while watching a boring movie — men hanging laundry — showed greater signs of stress than those watching a sad movie.

When you feel stressed, your physical body will rise up to dull the pain – without any consideration of your long-term goals.


In an attempt to dull the pain, you might start thinking about eating sugar or other addictive foods.

While thinking about (or seeing) a comfort food you love, you are instinctually driven to eat it. From a survival perspective, eating it means life and not eating it means death!

Combine this hard-wired survival mechanism with the pain of stress and the desire to eat kicks into high-gear.

AND . . . the craving often wins.


What happens while you’re indulging?

You feel relief.

Ahhhhhhh relief. Good right?!

Not so fast my friend.

While it’s satisfying in the moment, the relief is temporary.

Once the relief fades, you soon discover eating didn’t help you to avoid pain. It created another kind of pain. The pain of regret.


When an emotion (such as regret) enters the mix, the desire to avoid pain gets magnified.  

Your body rises up again to dull the pain and you find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle.

How can you use this knowledge to influence your choices and get out of the stress-eating cycle?

Use a little “CPR”:

C = CALM the Stress

When it comes to stress-eating, it’s best to deal with the root cause of the pain – the stress.

Actively look for healthy ways to reduce stress in your life – and implement them.

P = Ponder Future Pain 

When you’re in pain, your body looks for immediate relief. For that reason, think about ways of making future pain seem more real now.

For example: When you’re faced with the choice of either sticking to your goals or abandoning them, ask yourself:

How will I feel tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year if I don’t follow through?

Really take the time to imagine what it will be like.

Yes, the discipline of sticking to your goals and following through on them can be difficult, but so is the experiencing the pain of regret.

The difference, as I’ve heard it said, is:

“The pain of discipline weighs ounces, while regret weighs a ton.”

 R – Release Self-Judgment

But, what if it’s too late? What if you’re already upset because you’ve eaten something you were trying to avoid?

You need to release self-judgement. Remember:

It wasn’t weakness of willpower. It was strength of the survival response.

You did your best. Let go of the rest. Release self-judgment before it snowballs into more stress.

So there it is!

The reason you stumbled even though you really, really, REALLY wanted to achieve your goal was:

  • To avoid pain, and/or
  • To gain pleasure

To break free from the stress-eating cycle, use this knowledge to your advantage by implementing CPR:

  • C = CALM the Stress
  • P = Ponder Future Pain
  • R = Release Self-Judgment

These strategies will go a long way in helping you to stick to your healthy eating plan . . . and to get back up when you stumble.