I’m reading the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In the book, Clear explains the three major parts to a habit: cue, craving, response, and reward. To change a habit, we have to make the response to the new, good habit, easy, and the old response to the bad habit, hard. One way to make the right response easy, is to change your environment. For example, if my phone is turned all the way off and is in the other room, the chances that I’ll pick it up and mindlessly scroll through social media are almost zero. Here is another example: If I see the jar of granola on the counter, the chances that I’ll eat it increase dramatically. If the jar is in the back of a cupboard, I might forget about it.
Stress-eating is something I’ve been struggling with for a long time, and identifying my cues, cravings, responses, and rewards is helping me a lot. I’m going to break it down for you, and hopefully you can learn something from my experience. Let’s start by discussing my three main cues to eat:
Hunger. This is the proper cue, and the craving is food. In response, I should eat a proper meal – heavier on protein, healthy fat, and veggies if I want to be less hungry. The reward is, I’m not hungry anymore.
Feeling tired. This is a cue that causes me to crave sleep. But when that’s not an option, I crave something that I can eat that will wake me up instead. So my response is to either eat chocolate for caffeine, or eat a ton of carbs for a sugar rush. That wakes me up. The cue is “I’m tired. I want to sleep”. The craving is “I really want chocolate or sugar.” The response is that I eat chocolate or carb-heavy foods until I feel awake – and that can be an entire bar of chocolate or at least two servings of granola! The reward is that I feel good – I feel awake and able to function. This is one of the main causes of stress eating, for me.
Being sad or upset. This is my other main cause of stress eating. The cue is either “I’m sad” or “I’m mad.” Either way, I feel like I want to cry – which is also a cue. The craving is “I want a dopamine/serotonin rush. I want something to make me feel good.” The response is that instead of addressing the issue, I eat food that makes me feel good – usually carbs. The reward is that I now feel good, and I no longer feel like I want to cry.
Now, if you know anything about excess calories and their affect on the body, you know that reasons two and three will make a person gain weight. Without going into detail, that’s what happened to me. And the only way to change that, is to change my habits. Here is my stratagy:
Feeling tired. This is the cue. The craving is obviously sleep. The response is…. you guessed it, sleep. That would be ideal, but unfortunately, it isn’t always an option. What if I can’t sleep right now, what if don’t have time to sleep right now? Well, chocolate could be an answer, but eating carbs definitely isn’t the answer. Also, one chocolate bar in a day is stretching how much is good for me…two is over the limit. So I’m picking coffee or matcha. I can either buy these drinks or make them at home. Outside of caffeine, I can respond by rewiring my thinking. Instead of saying, “I feel so tired…I need a break…I need food…I need chocolate,” I can say “even though I feel tired, right now I am choosing to push through this because whatever I am doing right now is more important than sleep.” And if you disagree with that statement, you need to re-evaluate your life and make sure you are doing what you are passionate about and feel purposeful doing. The rewards for caffeine and changing my thoughts, are, I will feel happy and excited to be doing whatever I am, and I will have more energy to push through it.
Feeling sad/mad. This is the cue. The craving is anything to take my mind off feeling this way or to make me feel better. What should my response be? Not food. Maybe I need to just cry. Or maybe I need to talk to someone. Maybe I should journal, read, or just take a break from whatever I was doing. Or grab a cup of tea. I can pray about it, and I should do my best to see the good in the situation, and be grateful for it. The reward is that I will feel better, and hopefully have healing.
In conclusion, whether you are like me, and are trouble with stress-eating, or if you are just struggling with your habits in general, you can change! Identify your cues, cravings, responses, and rewards. Then change your responses to right responses. Try to make the wrong responses hard. For example, if I’m sad, mad, or tired, I shouldn’t step foot in the kitchen. Instead, I should get as far away from it as possible, and I shouldn’t have those carb-heavy foods on hand when I’m feeling stressed! Also, I should make sure the right responses are easy. There should always a journal out where I can see it, a friend or family member a phone call/text away, coffee brewing, and enough time for sleep. Find your own new and better responses, make them easy, and put them to use. Here’s to better habits, for a better life!