Turn Off Your Stress Switch Before You Eat

Post written by Mike Bundrant.

People overeat for various reasons, but none are more pernicious than stress eating. The problem for average dieters is that overeating turns out to be a very effective means of managing stress (the only side effect is a big belly). If you are a chronic overeater and suddenly take away all that excess sugar and fat, your body suddenly lacks a way to calm down.

Researcher Norman Pecoraro, PhD, of UC San Francisco describes how the stress hormone cortisol drives you toward fatty, sugar-laden food and then deposits those excess calories in the abdomen as belly fat. Once this is done, a message is sent to the brain to squelch the stress response, as the stress-induced demand for extra energy has been satisfied. Whew, you are now calmer. And fatter.

This is a problem.

The healthy approach to stress management involves reducing stress before your brain responds to it (according to its more primitive programming) with an urgent call for more physical energy supplies (food). This may sound difficult to do, but learning about your brain’s stress switch will make it much easier to manage. It all begins with a little known brain network called the default mode network.

The Default Mode Network: Your brain’s stress switch

Medical research on the source of chronic stress points to the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN, active when your brain is not cognitively engaged (or mindful), is responsible for the stream of self-referential thoughts that is commonly called “autopilot thinking.”

When the DMN is hyperactive, it becomes a source of chronic tension. Most people today can identify with a mind that won’t “turn off.” Continual mental activity inhibits relaxation, connection to the environment, peaceful sleep and keeps you in a state of chronic distraction and even self-consciousness. Scientific research has linked hyperactivity in the DMN to depression, ADHD, insomnia, PTSD and other health conditions.

What can be done about it? It turns out that you can deactivate this noisy brain network whenever it acts up. If you’re skeptical of this claim, so were researchers. Marcus Raichle, MD, the original DMN researcher, explained in the March 2010 edition of Scientific American:

In 1998 we even had a paper on such findings rejected because one referee suggested that the reported decrease in [DMN] activity was an error in our data. The circuits, the reviewer asserted, were actually being switched on at rest and switched off during the [cognitive] task. Other researchers, however, reproduced our results for both the medial parietal cortex — and the medial prefrontal cortex (involved with imagining what other people are thinking as well as aspects of our emotional state). Both areas are now considered major hubs of the DMN.

It boils down to this: You can “turn off” the part of the brain that causes endless stress! Engaging in specific kinds of cognitive tasks, also known as awareness practices, has been scientifically proven to alter brain circuitry (not brain chemistry, but actual circuitry) without the use of drugs.

The following awareness practices have proven very effective at turning off the stress switch, or DMN, and accessing the present.

As you engage in any of above awareness practices, do not try to relax or do anything at all other than listen or feel. After a few moments, you will notice yourself “settle” a bit. This is it. Your stress switch is turned off – the DMN is deactivated.

Eating with your stress switch turned off might change your eating habits dramatically.

To apply this to eating, do the following simple steps:

  1. Ground yourself in the present before you eat by taking just a minute or two with one of the above awareness practices.
  2. Stay grounded while you eat. Notice the mundane sounds around you. Feel the weight of the utensils and food in your hand. Feel the texture of the food as you chew. Immerse yourself in the colors of the food on your plate and the taste as well.
  3. If you get distracted by stray thoughts, just return your awareness to the sounds, and feelings in your immediate environment. If you need to, repeat one of the awareness practices above for a minute before continuing your meal.

Here are some thoughts on how to apply these awareness practices throughout the day:

Implement these practices once or twice a day and discover what it is like living with your stress switch in the OFF position more of the time. Most of all, learn how this healthy stress management technique changes your craving for food.