Food for thought: Eating away the stress

Alaina Shelzi logs on to a familiar page, Canvas, checking her emails along with snacks. (Photo By Lily Bonadies)

On St. Michael’s campus, students are racing toward the end of the school year, and seniors are getting ready for life after college. With classes, work, activities, homework, parties and more all crammed into a 24-hour day, there’s not a lot of time left to relax. One way students deal with anxiety? Food. There’s even a term for it: stress eating.

“When we experience stress, it is not just in our mind, but also in the rest of our bodies. When we are stressed, our bodies release fight or flight or freeze hormones that flow throughout our bodies,” said Sarah Klionsky, personal counselor at Bergeron Wellness Center.

“I’d say pretty much every day is a stressful day right now,” said Alaina Shelzi ’19 a theater/media studies double major who reaches for food when she’s stressed out. “I’m really bad at dealing with stress. I tend to snack and watch YouTube videos. I’ll sit in bed with Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies to the left of me and a bag of chips to the right and just alternate eating them.”

Dr. Howard Segal, who specializes in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry in Illinois said that stress can definitely cause physical changes in the body – including having an effect on the appetite. “Stress can cause anxiety, which can present as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, sleep disturbance (reduced sleep or increased sleep), appetite changes (reduced or increased) and fatigue.”

Science helps explain why eating more food seems to help calm our nerves. According to an article in the Harvard Health Newsletter stress causes the hormone cortisol to be released in your bloodstream, and that kicks your system and appetite – into high gear.

“If we do not find ways to burn off those hormones through exercise, or deep belly breathing and mindfulness practices, resolution of the stress can get held and stuck in the body, which can, over time, hurt our immune system’s capacity for fighting off injury or illness,” said Klionsky.

“Stress is why I’m such a good student,” said Shelzi. “It’s definitely a motivator. I dive in head-first.” Still, she said she knows reaching for unhealthy snacks isn’t the best coping mechanism. “It’s like, ‘OK, it’s been 30 mins – time to get back to my work.’ It does sort of just increase the stress because I know I am putting unhealthy food into body and it’s not going to help my productivity but it’s a vicious cycle.”

There’s a reason people reach for junk food like cookies and chips to calm their nerves, according to the Harvard article.

“These foods really are ‘comfort’ foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.” What’s more, “Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary ‘comfort foods’ push people toward overeating.” So, they often don’t stop at one or two cookies.

According to Dr. Segal, college students often worry about their classwork and future careers: “In college students, stress is often due to academic issues and planning for future life as a working adult.”

And it’s not just students who are feeling anxious these days. A 2017 Gallup Poll showed that eight out of 10 Americans consider themselves stressed. Other than carbo-loading, how can we better manage stress? According to the Harvard article, meditation, exercise and getting social support from friends and family are all positive ways to deal with stress – without reaching for the Thin Mints.