08/15/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

Don't Eat Your Stress

Everyone feels stress to some degree, though the experience is very much an individual one. Stress occurs for different reasons and at varying levels of intensity and frequency -- what triggers stress for one person may not be at all stressful to another. A recent poll that examined "the burden of stress in America," reports that about half of Americans experienced at least one "major stressful event" in the past year. Though as many can attest, stress has a way of making monthly, weekly, and even daily appearances.

The poll -- conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health -- zeroed-in on stress at the individual level, asking participants about personal experiences, the perceived effects of stress on their lives, and what they do to cope. It may come as no surprise that reported sources of stress run the gamut from work to personal relationships and financial problems, and all of these stressors vary in prevalence and intensity based on age, sex, socio-economic status, and health status, among other factors.

Across the groups of surveyed individuals however, personal health problems and health issues of family members were the most commonly cited stressor. A vicious cycle, considering the toll that persistent stress takes on the body and mind. In stressful situations, our sympathetic nervous system is recruited, stimulating the release of hormones to increase fuel to our muscles and brain. While this response is key in quick decision-making, it's not so helpful when our stress is constant, disrupting daily habits such as sleeping (70 percent slept less than usual when stressed, 41 percent slept more), exercising (43 percent exercised less than usual; 26 percent exercised more), and also, eating.

The relationship between food and emotions is complicated to say the least. At one end of the spectrum is someone who has a stressful day and finds comfort in eating, whether it be reaching for junk food or overeating in large quantities. At the complete opposite end is someone who struggles with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another type of disordered eating, exacerbated by stress. In between lay a plethora of other stress-eating responses. It's no coincidence that the poll reports such a close split in behavioral responses related to food: 39 percent ate more than usual, while 44 percent ate less than usual.

Our bodies affect our minds as much as our minds affect our bodies. To maintain good health and wellbeing, we need to realize their interdependence and take care of both. The practice of mindfulness can help to reconnect the body with the mind, and specifically, eating mindfully can help ward off some of our autopilot stress responses related to food:

Soothe stress with mindful breathing. In the time it takes to grab a chocolate bar, we can calm ourselves down by taking a few conscious breaths, in and out. In so doing, we create a sense of peace in and around us, and can move forward with more clarity.

Physical vs. emotional hunger. After a few breaths, ask yourself this question: am I truly hungry, or am I looking to food as a way to relieve my stress? Going further, ask yourself: what am I feeling stressed about? Why am I feeling stress as a result of this? Am I on autopilot?

Stress doesn't taste good. Realize that when you eat as a result of stress, or focus on your stresses and worries while eating, you are not eating your food. Instead, you are actually eating those stresses and worries! Acknowledge that stress does not taste good, and shift your attention to fully experience the delicious food on your plate. When you eat, only eat --for a few moments at least -- the rest can wait.

Limit food in high-stress zones. Reflect upon the physical areas in your life where you regularly experience the most stress and avoid keeping easily accessible food in those spaces. For example, if you feel constant pressure at work, don't keep a drawer filled with comforting treats that are easy to grab and mindlessly eat as you frantically rush through daily tasks.

Food-free coping. Find some favorite activities for coping with your stress that do not involve food. Journaling, listening to music, singing, walking, yoga, meditation (six in 10 surveyed said they regularly prayed or meditated, which 85 percent of those respondents found to be effective), and gardening are just a few examples that you can use to channel your emotions.

Seek support. Remember, everyone experiences stress and you are definitely not alone if stress is disruptive to your normal eating habits. If you can't curtail your emotional eating on your own or you feel that it's getting out of control, it may be helpful to consult with a professional who specializes in emotional eating.