10 ways to overcome emotional eating

Congratulations — You are Charge Nurse today. And you have no regular staff. In fact, you are working short, and you have no secretary. Plus, the staff you do have are from registry or float pool, and you have 5 admissions coming. What do you do?

These scenarios happen. More often than you’d like. From my own experience (which I’m sure many nurses can relate to), our #1 enemy in these situations is… The Staff Lounge. That dreaded Staff Lounge. It’s filled with cookies, donuts, and cake at any given time of the day.

And you’re frustrated. You want to feel better, so you crave food. And you want to eat everything in your path.

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Why do we eat to feel better?

As Dr. John Ratey explains in his national bestselling book Spark, eating high-fat, high-sugar foods stimulate the reward centers in our brain, which creates a surge in dopamine. The brain then remembers what ignited this dopamine surge (what made you feel good), and thus creates structural changes in the brain that will wire you and motivate you to seek that same surge in dopamine. Over and over and over. So, if you feel good eating pizza one time, it is very likely you will want to keep eating pizza in the future to feel good.

So, how can we stop this vicious cycle?

10 strategies to fight emotional eating

1. Listen to your body

Notice your respiratory rate, your heart rate, your muscle tension. Notice that your stress levels are increasing. Realize that you are experiencing a physiological response to stress and that you may not actually be hungry.

2. Talk to yourself

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No, really. Take 1 minute to have a conversation with yourself and ask important questions, such as:

  1. Will I regret this later?
  2. Is eating this piece of food worth ruining my days of hard work and eating right?
  3. Am I actually hungry or am I reacting to my stress?
  4. What else can I do to make me feel better at this moment?

3. Leave the unit and get fresh air

It helps a great deal just to change your environment. Walking away from a stressful situation can help you stay clear-headed and better focused to confront conflict.

4. Problem solve

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Huddle up with your staff or unit manager, even for a few minutes, to ask their input on how to best proceed with the issue at hand.

5. Don’t go into the staff room

If you know that there is food you want to eat in the staff room, simply do not go in there. Walk away from the unit, or from any place where you will be tempted to eat.

6. Drink cold water

Sometimes drinking a glass of water can help you to feel full and curb your food cravings; often times, we don’t drink enough during the shift — we don’t need to be dehydrated either!

7. Hit the stairs

Doing a few minutes of physical activity like walking or hitting the stairs can help boost your dopamine levels. Try to be active instead of reaching for that last Pop Tart in the vending machine.

8. Take on the challenge

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Change your perspective of the situation and try to take on the conflict as an additional challenge for you to overcome; knowing that you can overcome hardships will help you to feel more confident and empowered, even when the going is tough.

9. Keep a positive mantra on hand

What is your go-to saying when you feel upset? Reciting a mantra in your head (such as “Nothing Will Break Me”) helps to change your mindset of the situation, thus helping to relieve your stress a great deal!

10. If you must eat, prepare a healthy snack ahead of time

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If eating comforts you, try to prepare healthy snacks before coming in to work that are high in protein and healthy fats; the fuller you feel, the less likely you will want to eat a lot. Some healthy snacks I personally enjoy are: plain oatmeal with raw almonds, almond butter, and chia seeds; beef jerky; or apples with peanut butter.

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