Does Stress Make You Reach For Chocolate?

Does stress make you reach for Chocolate? It does me. Oops. That’s bad. Or is it? There is no question but stress is hard on your body. The inflammation caused by stress challenges your heart, your metabolic, your emotional health, and much more. One way to counteract the effects of stress is to make a plan for healthy foods and exercise when you’re under stress. 

Image of foil wrapped chocolate--Does stress make you reach for chocolate like it does me?

Riiight. When I’m stressed out, I’m reaching out for what’s quick or easy or available. Most often I reach for comfort foods high in fat and sugar and starch. And exercise? Fuagetaboutit. I don’t have the time. I’m too stressed. You, too? 

This is the third in my series of posts on stress and what we can do about it. (see Recognize Your Stress Levels and To Stress or To Sleep.) In this post, I won’t tell you all the foods and exercise you should be doing. You probably already know. But I will tell you WHY you might want to make better choices.

What Stress Produces

Dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol are the most common stress hormones. These hormones stimulate the body for the “fight or flight” response. They affect basic body functions like blood flow, heart rate, and breathing. 

“Even minute changes in levels of these substances can significantly affect health.” For an in-depth discussion of these stress hormones read Stress: It’s Worse Than You Think.

The Calming Hormones

Our bodies produce several hormones that play a part in “calming” us. Various studies and reports say that DHEA, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin reduce stress hormones. So-called “health” sites promote supplements or certain dietary changes to saying that their hormone-containing product will help you overcome the bad effects of stress. In reality, studies of these hormones and the supplements have had mixed results. We need more research to know how these hormones work and if supplements can help.

If you take supplements, please use caution. These supplements can and will interact with other medications. They can cause side effects and other health problems. Always consult your physician or your pharmacist before adding a supplement to your regime. Always tell your health care professional which supplements you take. 

It’s Complex

The study of hormones is complex. Genetics, psychology, physiology, and chemistry all play a role in the processes and the effects of hormones. Interdisciplinary studies take time. But what’s a person to do until we know more?

Create a plan. A stress plan. You are in charge, create your personal stress plan.

Diet and Stress

Do you reach for chocolate when you’re stressed? I do. Chocolate is one of my “reward“ foods. It makes me feel good. 

Small amounts of dark chocolate can be good for you. But too much can cause health problems you want to avoid. 

There are studies that suggest that under stress, your reward signaling and reward sensitivity are significantly lower.  This leads to food choices that are higher in fat and sugar. Studies suggest that the more high-fat and high-sugar foods you eat, the more you need to eat to feel the same reward signal. 

Stress is the psychological equivalent of ragweed. Once the body becomes sensitized to pollen or ragweed, it takes only the slightest bloom in spring or fall to set off the biochemical alarm that results in runny noses, watery eyes, and the general misery of hay fever. But while only some of us are genetically programed to be plagued with hay fever, all of us have the capacity to become sensitized to stress.

Psychology Today

What does all this mean? It means that stress does make you reach for chocolate. Or for your favorite high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks. And once you’re stressed, it’s difficult to not devolve into a poor diet that will only lead to more stress and more cravings.

So while we don’t understand why some foods make us feel better. It is important to be proactive and create healthy choices to combat stress BEFORE we are stressed. 

Healthy Choices

You’ve probably seen the USDA’s my plate campaign. image of the recommended portions of the five food groups.

Explore your favorite foods that fall into healthy choices and plan which ones will help you deal with stress. 

Some foods are rich in nutrients that can help with high blood pressure (potassium), or headaches (magnesium). Which foods are best for stress? It depends upon your body, your health, and your food preferences. One thought is that if you make healthier choices a routine, you’ll choose the less healthy options less often. Even under stress.

An occasional slip into the high-fat, high-sugar foods when stressed won’t cause harm. But if you don’t have a plan for healthier eating, you’ll end up making food choices that won’t help you feel better. 

Stressed? Reach for… Exercise

If stress makes you reach for chocolate-exercise. Image of man walking up stairs in forest

According to WebMD, “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever.” The news and advertisements have long advised us that exercise releases endorphins. The runners’ high is real. But the endorphins don’t work alone. Serotonin and norphenylephrine are also released during exercise. 

Until recently, studies suggested that you needed at least thirty minutes of intense exercise to get an endorphin release. New evidence suggests that you can get a slower, less intense release of endorphins by exercising for fifteen minutes several times a week. And it still contributes to your well-being.

So don’t sweat it. Or—do. It’s your choice. 

In times of high stress, it is difficult to find the time or the energy to exercise. But again, try to make a plan for it. Look at your environment and situation. Can you take a five- or ten-minute fast walk around the hallways of the hospital every hour or two? That will help. 

According to  J. Kip Matthews, PhD, a sports psychologist, “The more sedentary we become—not getting regular exercise—the less efficient the body is at dealing with stressors that are being placed on it.”

Maybe you don’t want to or can’t step away from your situation. But you could do some simple stretches or march in place or dance for fifteen minutes. Get your body moving. 

What Do You Reach For?

Does stress make you reach for chocolate? If it does, don’t beat yourself up for it (and cause more stress). But do make a plan for how you want to react to stress. Choose the best foods and exercises for you. Do you have a certain food or exercise you use for stress reduction? Your comment below may help someone else reach for healthier foods and for exercise. 

To Stress or To Sleep?

The demands on your time and abilities mount. Your stress levels build. You develop physical or emotional or behavioral symptoms (see my previous post Recognize Your Stress Levels). The stress and its symptoms can cause serious physical, emotional, and behavioral issues. You know you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms. But you’re stressed? How do you manage? Especially when every night you’re in a loop to stress or to sleep.

A woman sitting on the floor, hands over her face thinking to Stress or to sleep

The Basics

Our body has some basic needs. Food. Water. Exercise. And sleep. Today we’ll talk about sleep. Why do we need sleep? How much sleep do we need? And how can we attempt to get enough sleep when stressed?


We tend to think of sleep as a time when we “shut off” our brain and body. As a result, we treat sleep as the thing we do after we’ve done everything else. (Or is that just me?) But getting enough sleep every should be a priority. And it should be a higher priority when we’re stressed. 

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.

Sydney J. Harris

Why We Need Sleep

Sleep allows our bodies to perform many important functions. The first is that sleep restores “brain plasticity.” You know that “foggy” feeling the morning after an all-nighter? Without enough sleep, our brain cannot adapt well. 

Our bodies take in information all day long. Those sights, sounds, touches, smells, and emotions and new information and events need processed and stored. During sleep, we solidify and consolidate our memories. If you are short on sleep, you will be short on memory.

During sleep our bodies repair tissues, grow muscles, synthesize hormones. A chronic lack of sleep can cause a worsening of depression, high blood pressure, migraines, and even seizures. And lack of sleep compromises our immune system. Our chances of illness and infection increase.  

“Sleep also plays a role in metabolism: Even one night of missed sleep can create a prediabetic state in an otherwise healthy person.”

In other words, to be healthy we need adequate sleep.

Our Bodies Crave Sleep

Do you ignore times when your body is telling you you’re hungry? I know I do. I’ll skip a meal. Our bodies cannot force us to eat. It can make us feel sick or weak and we eat to make that feeling go away. But it doesn’t force us to eat. 

I can skip on my sleep, too. But there comes a point when I can no longer keep my eyes open. I’ll fall asleep no matter what I’m trying to do. I’m sure it works that way for you, too. That’s because our bodies need sleep. Our bodies crave sleep. Our bodies will force us to sleep if it must.

How Much Is Enough Sleep?

The National Sleep Foundations conducted a two-year study and made these recommendations by age. 

Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day 

Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours 

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours 

Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours 

School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours 

Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours 

Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours

Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours

Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours 

National Sleep Foundation

How to Get Enough Sleep When Stressed

Getting to sleep when you’re stressed isn’t easy. Set yourself up for success. Good sleep habits (also known as sleep hygiene) before stressful events will help you get the sleep you need. Don’t have good sleep habits? Then practice good sleep hygiene now. 

1. Make your bedroom a restful place. 

  • Quiet (you may need a white noise generator or ear plugs)
  • Dark (blackout curtains or a sleep mask)
  • Cool room temperature 
  • Fresh air, free of allergens (an open window or a fan)
  • Clean bedroom (at least without clutter and distractions)
  • Comfortable mattress and pillow

2. Develop a sleep routine.

Consistency of your bedtime routine helps signal your brain and body to prepare for sleep. 

  • Go to bed at the same time every night. 
  • Make certain your bedtime allows for enough hours of sleep before you must get up. 
  • Do the same thing(s) before bedtime every night. (A sleep routine)

3. Put away the electronic devices one or more hours prior

You may not be able to turn off your phone, but stop looking at the screen–any screen. There’s plenty of research that says screen time will decrease sleep and quality of sleep.

4. Practice relaxation for thirty minutes before bedtime.

  • Read or listen to relaxing music 
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Relax your muscles. Focus on each part of your body. Clench and release your muscles. Breath out the tension and consciously think about relaxing. Start with your face. Once you feel your face relax, focus on your neck, and down your body– upper back, arms, hands, lower back, buttocks, upper legs, lower legs, and feet. You may fall asleep before you get all the way to your feet. 

5. Visualization

Imagine yourself going through your sleep routine, getting into bed, falling asleep, having a restful night. Research shows that your brain responds to visualization as if it actually happens. Repeated visualizations of good sleep practices will help you get a good night’s sleep.

6. Count Sheep.

Or count backwards. Or count by threes. What and how you count isn’t important. What’s important is your focus. Keep your focus on the numbers. That will keep your worries at bay and help you relax.

7. Be mindful.

Deep breathing, meditation, or yoga may boost your sleep time and quality.

8. Journal

Write about what you’d like to dream about, or count your blessings, or list things you for which you are grateful.

9. Schedule worrying time.

  • If worries keep you awake, schedule time for your worries. Set aside fifteen to thirty minutes in every morning or afternoon. Use a timer to keep to your time limit. 
  • Journal or just think about your worries. 
  • List your worries and what you might do to resolve them 
  • List the things you want to accomplish for the next day. 

You schedule a time and a time limit to help your brain understand that you take your worries seriously and can let go of those worries until your next appointment with worry.

Managing Stress Not One-and-Done

Unfortunately, managing stress is not a one-and-done process. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. What works for you this day may not work the next. Try a little of everything until you find what works. Don’t get caught between to stress or to sleep. Give yourself every opportunity to get enough sleep. And stay tuned for next week’s discussion of how diet and exercise affect stress management. 

Recognize Your Stress Levels

In 2013, I wrote a blog post called 10 Warning Signs You’re Doing Too Much. It has been my most popular blog post ever since. It’s a sign of our times. We are all under stress almost all the time. The pressure to be more, do more, have more is intense. Add to that legitimate fears about your (or a loved one’s) physical, emotional, or financial safety and your stress levels are higher. Then there are community and political stressors. Your stress levels today may not be exhausting, but tomorrow they could be. And when you live with stress every day, you may not recognize your stress levels and how they affect your life.

Image of young woman of color sitting on the floor back against the sofa, hands covering her face--do you recognize your stress levels?

What is Stress?

In a medical or biological context, stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.

What Causes Stress 

Each one of us faces challenges every day. From traffic jams, to spills, demanding bosses, unsympathetic spouses, or life crises (relationships, financial, or health). And we each respond to the stress in our life differently. Some of us can handle more stress than others. But all of us have biological responses to the stress we face. 

Under stress our body, specifically our adrenal glands, release hormones. Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, regulates several things. Read more about Cortisol on WebMD. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called Adrenaline) are catecholamines. The adrenal glands also release catecholamines when you are physically or emotionally stressed. These hormones help your body go into the fight-or-flight response. 

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.

Etty Hillesum

When the fight or flight isn’t an appropriate response, such as in a work situation, the fight-or-flight response may distort into physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral signs. Do you have any of these signs of stress?

Physical Signs of Stress

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Emotional Signs of Stress

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Doing something that is productive is a great way to alleviate emotional stress. Get your mind doing something that is productive.

Ziggy Marley

Cognitive Signs of Stress

  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

William James

Behavioral Signs of Stress

  • Changes in appetite—either not eating or eating too much
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

John Newton

Many thanks to WebMD for the lists of symptoms of stress.

How to Relieve Our Stress

In times of life crisis, whether wild fires or smoldering stress, the first thing I do is go back to basics… am I eating right, am I getting enough sleep, am I getting some physical and mental exercise every day?

Edward Albert

First, you must recognize your stress levels. You must know when you are under stress that is affecting your physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral well-being. (see the symptoms above or the 10 Warning Signs). Then you as Edward Albert said, go back to basics. The basics are important. If you aren’t eating right or getting enough sleep and exercise, you won’t handle the stress as well as you might wish.

You are braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

From “Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin” (1997) by  Karl Geurs and Carter Crocker

There are events and pressures that may be out of your control. But when you recognize your stress levels, you can decrease your signs of stress. Take Christopher Robin’s words to heart. You are Braver and Stronger and Smarter than you think. You can handle what you must. Stay tuned next week for tips on how to reduce your stress. 

Does the End of the Year Stress You Out?

It’s the last month of the year–a busy, busy time. Not only do we continue our usual work schedule, but we also prep the house for the holidays (whichever one you celebrate), we fix big meals, we spend time with family, and we reflect back on the past year. I don’t know about you but I enjoy all those things. Yet, at the same time, I can get overwhelmed. So much stress! Does the end of the year stress you out?

Does the end of the year stress you out?

What is Stress?

Stress is your body’s way of handling any kind of demand or threat. When you face a threat your body is designed to release hormones that kick your body into high gear. These hormones are called stress hormones. They cause your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tighten, you breathe quick, short breaths, and your senses become sharper. This is the fight or flight response you probably learned a bit about in school.

Back when we were cave dwellers this fight or flight response to stress was life-saving. Today, stress can keep you on your game so you perform your best, it can warn you of and get out of potentially threatening situations. But, this same fight or flight response releases all those stress hormones when you are stressed out about an argument with your spouse, gift buying for the holidays, or work, or family situations. In other words, for those stressful times that are not life-threatening. And boy do we have non-life-threatening stress. (Or is that just me?)

What Causes Stress?

Anything can cause stress. Things that stress me out may not cause you any stress at all. Stress can be very short-term or very long term. Situations that can cause stress include:

        Being bullied

        Working too hard

        Losing a job

        Marriage or relationship problems

        Recent breakup or divorce

        Death in the family (or close friend)

        Difficulty in school

        Family problems

        Busy schedule

        Recent move or change of jobs

        Financial problems

        Chronic illness—yourself or a loved one

        Retirement (yes, you read that right)

        Rigid thinking

        Negative thinking

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Long-term stress can lead to your body being ultra-sensitive to stressful situations. Ultra-sensitive, your body will release stress hormones even when the situation isn’t that stressful. Over time these high levels of stress hormones can lead to changes in your behavior and in your physical and emotional health.

Physical symptoms of chronic stress include:


        Muscle pain or tension

        Nausea, dizziness

        Diarrhea or constipation

        Change in sex drive

        High blood pressure

        Chest pain, rapid heart rate

        Frequent colds or flu

Emotional symptoms include:

        Feeling you can’t get things done


        Anxiety, racing thoughts


        Lack of motivation


        Sadness or depression

Behavioral symptoms include:

        Nervous habits—chewing fingernails, pacing, etc.

        Sleeping too much or too little

        Eating too much or too little

        Smoking, using alcohol or drugs ‘to relax’

        Withdrawing from others

Levels of Stress

Do you  ignore minor levels of stress? Do you know when you’re getting close to being overcome by stress? Learn more about your levels of stress. 

Asking for Help Isn’t a Failing

If you are experiencing behavioral, physical or emotional symptoms of stress there are things you can do to lessen your stress levels. You can do some things for yourself (we’ll discuss those next week). You may want to talk to a trusted counselor such as your religious leader or a therapist. If it’s overwhelming you ask your physician if medications might help you manage.

If you are thinking of giving up, of hurting yourself or others, don’t wait.

Get help now.

Go to the emergency room, call 911, call a local suicide prevention hotline, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You don’t need to give your name.

Does the end of the year stress you out? I hope your stress is temporary. If it’s chronic, I pray that you find relief soon. What time of year are you most stressed? Next week we’ll talk about things that influence how stress affects you and ways to improve your ability to handle stress.

10 Warning Signs You’re Doing Too Much

Are you like me and burning the candle at both ends over-committed yourself to classes, a day job, writing, blogging, and other activities? Perhaps you or a loved one has had a sudden, unexpected health problem. Or you’ve simply gotten worn down by the day-to-day things that get under your skin. How do you know when you’re doing too much?

Lynette M Burrows, science fiction author; Lynette M. Burrows, author; Lynette M. Burrows, author action suspense science fiction
Burn courtesy of Patrick Feller on Flickr commons

Now you barely have the energy to get through the day. Or you’ve caught the current flu bug or cold and you can’t seem to get over it.  Your body and mind are screaming ENOUGH!

Don’t let get to the point that you feel like a pile of burnt matches.  Know the signs that the stress is getting too much.

Lynette M. Burrows, author; Lynette M. Burrows, science fiction author; Lynette M. Burrows, action-suspense science fiction
matches courtesy of Debs on flickr commons

Ten Warning Signs That You’re Working Too Hard:

  1. Your Productivity Declines – you put in more hours, yet get less and less done.
  2. No Time – for a favor, a commitment, a date with your friend or sweetheart, or even for your cherished indulgences.
  3. You Forget – to eat, an appointment, where you put that report or your keys.
  4. Things Are Out of Control – you’re always late; your normally neat desk is a mess; the dirty dishes are mutating in the sink; the stacks of bills or laundry (or both) are quickly becoming a mountain you can’t climb.
  5. Lack of Focus or Creativity – you flit from one task to the next, never finishing and never find a solution; you struggle to come up with new ideas, solutions to problems, or how to express an idea.
  6. Loss of Joy – you are beginning to dread tasks that normally you find enjoyable.
  7. Sleep Issues – you can’t sleep; can’t stay asleep; or you want to do nothing but sleep.
  8. Irritability – you snap at loved ones unjustly; you find yourself ‘just one more stupid driver’ short of total road rage.
  9. Health Issues – you have migraines or stomach problems on a daily basis; your acne, arthritis or asthma flares more frequently.
  10. Warnings from Friends and Family – you haven’t talked in weeks; your significant other tiptoes around the house afraid to disturb you; friends and family tell you you’re always busy, or they sit you down for an ‘intervention.’

You don’t want to know how up-close and personal I know all those warning signs. Really, you don’t. 🙂 But you do want to know what you can do when you recognize the warning signs in yourself.

Five Things to Do to Beat Stress:

1. Check Your Body

  • Are you fatigued despite getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep? Is your urine dark? The first sign of dehydration is fatigue. Be certain to drink plenty of water every day.
  • Is your resting heart rate up? Is your blood pressure up? If yes, be certain you get more sleep and more exercise. It’s not a matter of ‘when I can fit it in,’ it’s a matter of get it done or pay a price.

2. Re-prioritize – take a day to look at what you want to accomplish.

  • Look hard at your list. Are there some things that really don’t need to be done right now? Put them aside.
  • Is there some pieces of what you do that you can outsource? Hire a laundry lady or a housekeeper; have the secretary type up those letters; or you can ask family to help with tasks for a while.

3. Make a new plan. Break the task into smaller chunks that are more manageable. Make goals that allow you time to do the next four items on this list.

4. Schedule Fun – do something you love. Even just one hour a week can help. Take a walk, a swim, a jog. Meditate. Listen to music. Watch a movie. Read a book.

5, Take time off – An hour, a day, a week or more. Do something entirely different, at a different pace. Give yourself permission to breathe, to laugh, to do absolutely nothing.

Slow Down

Slowing down is not something I do willingly. I tend to be a bit (hubby chimes in with “majorly!) obsessive. When I’m committed to a project, I throw everything I’ve got into that project. I forget to sleep, to eat, to call friends and family. This is true not just of my writing or blogging, but of attention to my day job, household chores, whatever I want to ‘get done.’ I don’t seem to know how to pace myself. But, I’m learning.

If you push yourself too hard, something has got to give. Don’t be like me and let exhaustion make it impossible to work. Yes, there are times when an extra work load is needed. Just remember to listen: Listen to your body, your mind, your friends, and your family.

It’s nearing the end of summer and I’m hearing and reading that many people are feeling a bit overwhelmed. How about you?

Are you nearing Burn Out? Which of the steps above do you think you’ll find useful?

Have you pushed yourself too hard in the past? How did you recover?

Or have you learned to slow down?

This only lists 10 warning signs you’re doing too much and a mere 5 ways to de-stress. For more suggestions read Recognize Your Stress Levels, To Stress or To Sleep, Does the End of the Year Stress You Out? and Think You Know How to De-stress.