This is the third in a three-part series about the stress response, the relaxation response, and how the two processes influence who we are as eaters, our relationship with food, and our relationship with life.
Like all living creatures, we seek nourishment, and our brain chemistry guides us to take in what we need to sustain us. What differentiates us as humans is that we are also pleasure-seeking creatures with complex emotional lives. Where other creatures go into stress response for survival, our stress and relaxation levels are governed by our perceptions, thoughts and feelings. When we relish our food, delight in our experiences, and enjoy our lives, we tend to be relaxed and satisfied. But when toxic, negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves override our digestive chemistry with stress chemistry, our brain does not register satiation and keeps us eating until our hunger – for food, for nutrients, for nourishment, for pleasure – is satisfied.
Eating under stress reverses every good nutrition strategy we might have, because when the sympathetic nervous system is turned on under stress, the parasympathetic nervous system is switched off, which means under stress, digestion slows or switches off. You might experience this as stomach pain after eating, eating too much, eating too little, stomach pain hours after eating, and so on. Depending on how stressed you are, you may lose your appetite altogether, or you may eat little at a meal and make up for it hours later in a binge. If you are stressed when you eat, you might be eating the healthiest food imaginable, but its nutritional value will diminish, and it won’t nourish you.
Imagine how this plays out if you are stressed out about losing weight. When you use stressful strategies like radical diets and intense exercise, if view food as the enemy and weigh the pros and cons of eating each time you eat, you put yourself into stress. If guilt consumes you any time you eat something “bad”, or if you think about how much working out you will need to do to burn the calories you have just eaten, you put yourself into stress. If you believe you have to fight your appetite, it will put you in a stress response every time you see food. If in your mind you hate your body until you reach your goal, you will be stressed. Anxiety, tension, and self-judgment are all forms of stress. If your meal companions stress you, if you eat in anger or fear or tension, you will also eat in a stressed state.
Our relationship with food creates a mood that colors our emotional state for a good part of our waking day. Our emotional state also colors our relationship with food. The chances are if you have a stressed relationship with food, you have a stressed relationship with life. If you can shift into relaxed eating, if you can let go of your worries when you eat and use positive thoughts to help you absorb nutrients and burn calories, you can change your brain chemistry and optimize nutrition without changing what you eat. Feeling nourished helps elicit the relaxation response, which means any satisfying life experience fosters optimal digestion and diminishes hunger. When you can relax into life, relax into food, and create a nourishing relationship with both, you will be able to delight in your food and savor your life.