A few months ago, my client Jess’s evenings were going well. She would eat her planned dinner and then have two planned snacks, usually one dessert and one piece of fruit. Lately, though, Jess found herself reverting to “nighttime grazing,” often having three or four snacks and, most importantly, not feeling fully in control of her actions. While Jess begins her evenings with the intention of sticking to her previous snack plan, she often finds it too difficult to do so.  

Evening Stress

Jess and I discussed what has changed recently. One major factor is that her stress level has risen significantly. Jess has been having trouble with her rented office space, her husband has found out he needs heart surgery, and she is having problems with one of her family members. Jess shared that when she finally gets a chance to sit down and unwind at the end of the day, all of her stress comes bubbling up and finds its outlet through extra snacking.   

I asked Jess what else she was doing for stress relief in the evenings and she couldn’t think of anything. That certainly answered the question as to why she was having so much trouble! Not only was Jess dealing with the discomfort of her stress building up, she was also trying to decrease it without her habitual coping mechanism (eating) and without any other coping mechanisms as a substitute.   

I reminded Jess that stress often works like water in a river. Trying to dam it by simply telling herself “I won’t eat extra tonight” may work for a little while, but sooner or later the stress will build up and overflow, leading her to rely on the same habits she’s been trying to change. Jess’s habit of eating in the evening had become her primary way to cope with stress.  In order for Jess (and for all of us) to really create habit change, she has to create alternate ways to channel that stress. Jess and I discussed that until she creates those alternate channels, she’d likely keep eating more than she had planned in the evening, as would anyone who has habitually been an emotional eater. 

Jess made a list of things she could try in the evenings, like going for a walk, listening to music, playing with her dog, talking to a friend, journaling, mindfulness meditation, word games, or taking a bath. Right now, Jess’s goal is to fill her legitimate need for stress relief in the evenings but to do so in ways that don’t sabotage her overall health goals and compromise her sense of control!