Written by Jim McNerney

If there’s ever been a time that many of us are particularly likely to be dealing with on-going, elevated levels of stress or boredom, this is certainly it. Many people are out of work, or working from home, along with being cooped up and feeling isolated. And, to top it all off, we have no idea how long this is going to last.

When we experience an overload of stress or when we feel bored, many, if not most, of us turn to food for some instant emotional comfort and relief. There is nothing wrong with this and, in fact, it’s perfectly normal. That’s how were wired!  

However, if this becomes our “go to” method of responding to stress or boredom too often, it can have unintended consequences. These include unwanted weight gain and feeling out of control with food. This can create the vicious cycle of eating to relief stress and ultimately feeling even more stressed due to guilt or frustration caused by having overeaten. And around and around it goes.   

Here are a few of the methods that I regularly share my emotional eating clients. Many of my clients have great success using these methods to reduce the stress or boredom that’s been triggering their intense urges to overeat or to eat when they’re not even hungry.

Instead of fighting the urge to overeat, you’ll focus on quickly weakening your emotional distress, the true root cause of emotional eating.

It’s not humanly possible to feel calm AND anxious at the same time. As you’ll soon see for yourself, it also makes it far less likely that you’ll indulge in overeating to find some emotional relief.

These simple techniques will help you to very quickly move into a calm, relaxed state. You can use them whenever the urge to emotionally overeat strikes.

1. Chew Gum

Let’s begin with one of the simplest and most effective ways to very quickly put yourself into a relaxed state.

Chewing Gum reduces anxiety and lowers cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”.

In other words, chewing gum will move you into a calm state almost instantly and it can stop an emotional eating attack in its tracks. It’s simple and it works!

If you’re at work and something triggers an emotional eating impulse, have some gum within easy reach.    

Research suggests that flavored gum increases arousal in the brain. Gum-chewing can also stimulate the senses by involving smell, taste, and touch, which may explain why it’s been shown to increase alertness and improve mood.

Besides being so effective, gum is also inexpensive, easy to get and you can chew it almost anytime and anywhere.

I recommend chewing sugar-free gum to be kind to your teeth.

2. The 3-Minute Equal Breathing Technique

Equal Breathing is a simple and very effective technique to put your mind and body into a relaxed state in three minutes or less.

A few of the reasons why my clients like Equal Breathing so much are:

  • You can practice it most anytime and anyplace.
  • You can practice it while with others at the dinner table, or in a restaurant, and no one will ever know. They’ll probably just think you’re a great listener.
  • Since your focus is on counting, it naturally quiets the messages to go on an emotional eating free-for-all from your brain.

How to practice Equal Breathing:

  1. Assume a comfortable position (sitting, standing or lying down).
  2. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, and then exhale through your nose for a count of four. Keep your mouth closed throughout.
  3. Repeat these matching breaths until you feel calm.
  4. It may take some time to get used to inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
  5. Typically, we breathe through our mouths when the stress response kicks in. One of the reasons why this exercise works so well is because it forces you to breathe through your nostrils instead of your mouth.
  6. You can practice equal breathing for as long as you feel is necessary to weaken or silence these very powerful messages from your brain. Three minutes usually does the trick.
  7. Once you’re comfortable with this exercise, you can experiment with increasing the count to six or even eight per breath. This can make it even more effective.

3. Squeeze and Relax Your Muscles to Melt Stress

As the name implies, Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another excellent technique for quickly moving into a calm, relaxed and peaceful state.

A couple of the reasons why it’s so effective are:

  • It involves your entire body and the stress response is present throughout the whole body.
  • It works in two ways by releasing tension in your muscles while simultaneously allowing you to tune into your breathing.

How to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

  1. Progressive muscle relaxation can be practiced standing, sitting or lying down.
  2. If it’s convenient and comfortable for you, I recommend closing your eyes. For many people this helps to increase focus. However, a soft gaze will work just fine.
  3. Concentrate on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for about ten seconds.
  4. You’ll breathe in through your nose, hold for a count of 10 while tensing your muscles, and then breathe out through your mouth. If you’re in a relatively private setting, breathing out with a sigh will further increase your relaxation.
  5. In this example, we’ll do a quick progressive muscle relaxation that begins with your toes.
  6. Squeeze your toes downward and tense your feet as you inhale. Try to hold it while counting to 10. Then release that tension as you exhale.
  7. Now inhale as you squeeze the next muscle group.
  8. Count to 10, exhale and relax.
  9. The suggested muscle groups to tense and relax are:
    • Toes/feet
    • Calves
    • Quadriceps (front of upper legs)
    • Hamstrings (back of upper legs)
    • Glutes (butt)
    • Abdominals
    • Pecs (chest)
    • Back
    • Shoulders
    • Neck
    • Face/jaw
    • Eyes
  10. Progressive muscle relaxation can be safely practiced as often as needed to weaken or silence the messages to overindulge in eating from your brain.
  11. If it’s a struggle to hold your breath for a count of 10, reduce the count to one that works well for you.

This is also a great one to do in bed at night especially if you’re having trouble falling asleep.

4. Dance!

Dancing is a great way to totally relax because when your body feels good your mind does too.

All physical activity releases chemicals and hormones that activate the relaxation response and improve the mind’s perception of the world.

That’s why after a good dance the mind and body feel so calm and relaxed. Dancing reduces tension, elevates your mood, and even increases self-confidence. That’s a win-win-win!

When you feel that overwhelming urge to eat, simply turn on some of your favorite music and let yourself flow. Dance to your heart’s delight and feel your distress just evaporate.

Dancing is one of the very best stress reducers because it’s so simple. Any way that you choose to move is absolutely perfect! Remember, this isn’t Dancing with the Stars.

Dancing creates a positive reaction in both the body and the mind. When your distress rises up and that urge to go on an eating spree begins to overwhelm you, remember that just a little bit of dance can set you free.

If the impulse to eat hits you late at night, have an emergency playlist ready, plug in your headphones, and dance your way right through it.

5. Exercise Your Stress Away!

Exercise works exactly the same way that dance does to reduce stress and improve your mind’s perception of the world. That’s why after a good workout the mind and body feel calm and relaxed. Exercise reduces tension, elevates your mood, and even increases self-confidence.   

When your stress levels rise up and that urge to eat everything in sight begins to overwhelm you, you’ll want to do exercises that are quick, convenient and move your entire body through space.

Some of the most convenient home exercises are:

  • Body weight squats
  • Body weight lunges
  • Pushups  (from your knees if necessary)
  • Planks
  • Yoga
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Jogging in place (or on a home treadmill)
  • Burpees (Google this fantastic body weight exercise)
  • Brisk walking (in good weather)
  • Go for a bike ride
  • If you exercise regularly, feel free to use dumbbells, exercise bands, or Kettle Bells to increase the level of intensity
  • The key is to involve your entire body

You can Google any of these exercises to see how they are performed.

While always keeping safety in mind, these exercises should be performed until near complete muscle fatigue. This may require multiple sets of one exercise and/or following one exercise with another.

6. Enjoy an Epsom Salt Bath

Epsom salt, named for a bitter saline spring at Epsom in Surrey, England, is not actually salt but a naturally occurring pure mineral compound of magnesium and sulfate.

An Epsom Salt bath is particularly effective for those whose urges to emotionally eat strike at night.

The wonders of Epsom salt have been well known for hundreds of years. Epsom Salt has beneficial properties that can soothe the body, mind, and soul.

Some of the countless health benefits include relaxing the nervous system, curing skin problems, soothing back pain and aching limbs, easing muscle strain, and drawing toxins from the body.

One of the simplest ways to ease stress and stress-related problems is to soak in a tub full of hot water with a few cups of Epsom Salt.

Stress drains the body of magnesium and increases levels of adrenaline. When dissolved in warm water, Epsom salt is absorbed through the skin and replenishes the level of magnesium in the body.

The magnesium helps to produce serotonin, a mood-elevating chemical within the brain that creates a feeling of calm and relaxation. Magnesium ions also help you relax and reduce irritability by lowering the effects of adrenaline. It also improves sleep and concentration.

Fill your tub with warm water and add one half to 2 cups of Epsom salt. The more salt you add, the more detoxifying it will be, so you may want to start small and work your way up.

To make this an even more relaxing and pleasurable experience, dim the lights, light a candle and play some peaceful music. Adding a few drops of your favorite essential oil will enhance your experience and allow you to even more fully de-stress.

Take your time to just relax, luxuriate and breathe. Soak for 20 minutes to allow the Epsom Salt to pull the toxins from your pores. More than 20 minutes and you risk re-absorbing the impurities.

As an added bonus, experts believe that bathing with Epsom salt at least three times a week helps you to look better, feel better and gain more energy.

Note: Epsom salt poses serious safety risks when taken orally. Do not take epsom salts orally unless directed by a licensed health care provider.