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Stress Eating: It’s About Your Brain (not the food!)

Do you compulsively overeat and struggle with your weight?

And, were you abused and traumatized as a child?

If you answered yes to both questions, you’re not alone.

Research shows that people who experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood are twice as likely to have a food addiction in adulthood as those who were not abused. If you suffered abuse or other adverse childhood experiences growing up, chances are your ongoing weight-loss difficulties stem from this past trauma.

Mainstream weight-loss programs entice you to buy their food, follow their diet plan, and count points or calories. While they may be helpful, they cannot offer you a path to permanent weight-loss if they don’t address the underlying reasons you overeat.

You may be surprised to learn that your continued struggles with emotional eating and coping with triggers most likely has little to do with food, although this is important. The deeper reasons behind your stress-related eating are neurological, rooted in your nervous system’s response to stress.

Let’s start with a mini crash-course on brain science and trauma that will help explain why you feel triggered to eat and hold onto extra weight.

Childhood trauma and abuse create changes in a child’s developing brain. All early experiences influence brain development. But when a child suffers chronic trauma and fear, especially within her own family, the brain’s normal reaction to threats—the fight-flight-freeze response activated by the part of the brain called the amygdala—intensifies.

An overactive amygdala makes you hypersensitive to stress. This means that, when triggered, your body and emotions become dysregulated: You feel destabilized and overwhelmed. It’s then hard to tolerate your feelings and you experience unsettling sensations in your body. For example, your heart races, you take rapid, shallow breaths, you get a sinking feeling in your gut. You may feel anxious and afraid, or shut down completely and go numb. This is why you impulsively grab a fistful of M&Ms from the office candy jar when stressed. It’s not a sign of weakness. You’re simply trying to calm your dysregulated body and emotions.

Another effect of early trauma is that your brain has been conditioned to be ever alert for danger and doesn’t easily filter manageable from unmanageable situations. This means it takes very little to trigger your stress response and overwhelm your nervous system. That’s not easy to deal with, especially when it happens weekly—or daily. In this dysregulated state, you then turn to food to ground yourself.

Turning to food isn’t a weakness; it’s resourcefulness. You’re simply trying to stabilize yourself when your body and emotions become dysregulated.

It’s not your fault.

It’s just that your brain keeps responding—even to minor stress—as if you’re still in danger and this triggers emotional eating episodes.

The Stress-Weight Connection

The fight-flight-freeze response also triggers the release of cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Once a stressful event is over, the cortisol gets absorbed into your body. But when you’re hypersensitive to stress, your body produces an excess of cortisol. And this excess cortisol production can contribute to weight gain.

Experts believe that excess cortisol affects your metabolism and signals to the body to store fat, especially in the abdominal area. It also raises insulin levels and lowers blood sugar. This is why many people crave sweet, salty, and fatty foods when stressed. I bet you can relate to how soothing and numbing it feels to eat a box of chocolate chip cookies, gooey fast-food cheeseburger, or bag of chips on those days you feel overwhelmed.

Relief is a Breath Away

To break the stress-induced eating cycle, look beyond strategies that are all about the food. Bring your brain onboard so you can learn to calm your amygdala and tame emotional eating triggers. A simple way to do this is to use nature’s own self-calming tool.

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called abdominal or belly breathing, is an effective and simple relaxation technique.

The diaphragm is located between your chest and abdomen. When this muscle is fully engaged, it helps to pull air into your lungs, increasing blood oxygenation. Diaphragmatic breathing calms your nervous system and gives you energy and mental clarity.

Most people breathe from the upper part of their chest and take short, shallow breaths. Shallow breathing keeps you from getting the full calming effects of each breath, as nature intended. Babies are born breathing diaphragmatically, but through the stress and strain of life—and especially if they experience trauma—many children stop breathing that way. Shallow breathing then becomes their normal way of breathing.

To discover how you breathe, try this:

Sit or stand upright. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Inhale and exhale naturally and notice which hand is moving more. If the right hand is moving more than the left hand, you’re breathing more from your chest. If the left hand is moving more, you’re breathing from your diaphragm.

If you breathe from your upper chest, you can train yourself to breathe diaphragmatically:

  • Once again, sit upright with one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Breathe through your nose.
  • Focus on breathing from deep within your belly. Think of a bellows—expand your diaphragm as you inhale and contract it as you exhale. As you do this, you’ll notice the hand on your abdomen rising more than the hand on your chest. This is diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing like this may feel unnatural at first. That’s okay. You’ve probably spent most of your life taking shallow breaths. Practice daily and it will begin to feel natural.

Whenever you feel stressed and triggered to eat, think of diaphragmatic breathing as your pause button. Use it—anytime, anywhere—to quietly and quickly calm your body and brain and stop your impulse to grab food to soothe those unsettling feelings and sensations in your body. Breathe for about a minute and a half—the 90-second rule—to allow your body to calm down. You’ll then be able to handle the stressful situation with greater clarity and mindfulness—and without relying on food.

So remember, it’s dysregulation and an overactive amygdala—not laziness or a lack of willpower—that keep you turning to food when you’re stressed. Tame your brain by harnessing the power of your breath with diaphragmatic breathing. It’s your ever-ready tool to take charge of emotional eating triggers and bring the power of peace and calm to your weight-release journey.

Photo credit.

5 Responses

  1. Amazing article! A lot of people don’t understand that overeating can be linked to your brain. Like you said breathing exercises can be helpful in dealing with it. Some other great options are weight loss psychotherapy and meditation.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sophia! I’m glad this article was helpful to you. And absolutely, meditation is a wonderful practice to help with overeating, calming the nervous system, and for overall health and well-being. Thanks again for sharing. Warmly, Diane

  2. Katie

    “It’s not your fault”

    I sobbed at that part.

    I’ve been haunted by trauma and food addiction since childhood and struggled to unpack my issues.

    This article really helped make sense of some things.

  3. Dear Katie,

    That’s right. It is not your fault. You do not lack willpower. It’s about the trauma you endured and how the effect of that trauma lives in your nervous system. And you can heal.

    I’ve written a book that will help. It’s called Healing Emotional Eating for Trauma Survivors: Trauma-Informed Practices to Nurture a Peaceful Relationship with Your Emotions, Body, and Food. It will be published in September 2023 by New Harbinger Publications and it addresses more deeply the themes in this blog post. If you’d like to be informed about the book’s launch, email me at and I can add you to my newsletter list to be updated about my book.

    Thank you for posting and sharing your thoughts and experiences. I wish you all the best and send you warm thoughts for healing and peace.

    With love,

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