Self-Medicating with Food
Sticking to a healthy diet can be tricky for just about anyone, but what happens when your throw stress into the mix? A study published in Neuron examined the relationship between stress and food choices by asking 51 participants to rate 180 food items on overall healthiness, tastiness, and appeal. Of the 51 participants, 29 were then randomly chosen to be exposed to various stressors while being asked to choose between the food items they had previously rated. The rest of the 22 participants were asked to make choices between the same foods, while not being exposed to any stressors.
When put under stress, researchers found that people were much more likely to choose the tastier – but not necessarily the healthier – option. These findings suggest that in times of stress, we are likely to self-medicate with comfort foods, which in turn make it a lot harder to stick to our healthy goals.
More White than Grey
Repeated exposure to stress can cause drastic changes in our mood and our behaviours. People who are chronically stressed often experience high anxiety, problems sleeping, and heightened emotional responses. Furthermore, stress has the potential to physically alter your brain in a way that makes these responses the norm (when almost every day becomes ‘one of those days’).
In a series of experiments, Daniela Kaufer and her colleagues explored the changes in brain structure that are caused by chronic stress. What they discovered, was that over time the brain will produce fewer neurons and more myelin-producing cells. This imbalance creates an excess of myelin (white matter), which in turn disrupts the timing and balance in communication within the areas of the brain. This reaction, when it occurs between the hippocampus and the amygdala, can lead to heightened unhealthy emotional responses. Before you know it, the reaction you typically have while under stress becomes the norm.
YOU Are Your Greatest Support
Changing how you react to stress, especially when it is chronic, can have a large impact on self-sabotaging behaviours. Asking yourself questions such as: “What do I find encouraging? What other options do I have for achieving my goals? What truths, if any, are in my self-sabotaging thoughts?”
These can help you get back on track and keep you moving forward. Contact us at 416.921.CARE (2273) for a free 1–hour consultation with a leading therapist to find out how you can reverse the effects of stress.