So you’re a sleeve of Oreos in and you’ve just looked down at the mess of little black crumbs on your lap. Oops. We’ve all done it! It’s all too easy to reach for a quick and satisfying treat when you’re feeling stressed out. Eating provides a momentary lift and makes us feel good; that’s the endorphins talking, which is a type of brain chemical that can give you feelings of intense happiness. Pretty hard to resist, right?

Ignoring these feelings of stress by turning to food as a coping mechanism is a slippery slope and leads to a habit of emotional eating. While you may get that temporary boost, you’ll probably end up feeling worse than before you grabbed the snack. Read on for some tips to break this cycle for good.

Identifying the problem

I know I’m going to sound like I’m running a 12-step program here, but the truth is…the first step truly is admitting that you have a problem. The next time you find yourself at the bottom of a bag of cheese puffs, check in with yourself. How are you feeling, or how did you feel just before you started eating? If the answer is something like stressed, hurried, overwhelmed, or anxious, you may have subconsciously reached for the snack hoping for a sliver of comfort in your day, or maybe just a distraction from the feelings you were experiencing.

If you’re not sure that you will catch yourself in the moment, put a sticky note on the snack cupboard, or set an alarm on your phone during a common stress eating time each day. These tiny reminders can make you pause long enough to ask yourself what’s going on—you can also try journaling for a minute or two about your emotions.

Tingles in your tummy?

After you’ve taken a pause, do a quick body scan. Starting at the top of your head, quickly scan down your body and take note of how each part feels. You might notice a dull ache in your forehead or some tension in your shoulders. When you reach your stomach, you may feel a fluttering or a tight cramp. These are all signs pointing to stress, which confirms that you were most likely reaching for the snack as a source of comfort…like the food version of a snuggie. If you don’t notice those feelings of stress, you may actually be hungry. In that case, treat yoself to a healthy snack!

What to do instead

Once you’ve caught yourself in the moment, taken note of your emotions and scanned your body for physical signs of stress, you need to take things down a notch. There are many ways to soothe yourself that don’t involve food, so experiment with these ideas until you find the method that works best to bring your stress level down.

  1. Take a walk. Sounds simple, but getting outside and taking a breath of fresh air and physically moving forward can make you feel calmer. If you’re pressed for time, even a walk down the block and back is a great strategy to try.
  2. Read a book. Head into your bedroom or another space that feels calm and read something, anything, for 5 minutes.
  3. Meditate. There are lots of meditation apps to help you get started if you’re not sure where to begin. My favorite is the Calm app. If meditation isn’t your thang, just try taking a few deep breaths. Breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8.
  4. Drink water. Again, this sounds simple and that’s because it IS. Slowly sip a tall glass of water and close your eyes for a few minutes. You may notice that the urge to snack was really just thirst if you’ve forgotten to hydrate!
  5. Journal. Write down a list of the things stressing you out. Sometimes this purge can help your brain get the message that you’ve acknowledged the stressors so that you can move on.
  6. Call a friend. Need to be talked down? If you’ve tried a few of the strategies above and still feel wound up, call someone you trust and ask them to listen for a moment of venting, or ask them to tell you a joke or a story from their day to divert your attention.

Bottom line: emotional eating happens. If you feel like it’s a common pitfall that you’re ready to climb out of, try the flow of pausing, checking in with yourself/body scanning, and then soothing with a strategy that works for you. You’ve got this.