You open your planner and start making a To-Do list for the upcoming week: stats homework due Thursday, readings for recitation, advisor meeting Wednesday morning, anatomy midterm Thursday??? Presentation Friday??? Well, crap. It’s ok…you’ll be busy but this is manageable.
You flip the page and realize you also have a paper due Friday, you’re supposed to interview for that super competitive internship Saturday, oh and your boyfriend’s birthday is this weekend too.
Instinctively, you reach for the box of Cheez-Its and, half an hour later, you’ve planned your week, but half the box is gone.
Sound familiar? Stress eating— a type of eating in which one eats large amounts of foods in response to emotions or stress rather than hunger—is incredibly common among college students. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, 38% of adults surveyed reported eating in response to stress…and college students are no strangers to stress, whether it’s from worrying about grades, studying for endless exams, cramming in extra-curricular, or worrying about paying for food, rent, and tuition.
But why is it that eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s makes that presentation seem so much less intimidating? How come inhaling half a pizza makes us feel better about breaking up with a boyfriend?
Well, 60 million years ago, humans weren’t worried about acing their finals; instead, the main focus was catching enough food to survive and avoiding predators.
Historically, stress literally WAS starvation. People did not know when their next meal would be, so their bodies would go into power-saving mode. Basically, the body tried to conserve as much energy as possible: the liver begins to break down nutrient stores, the adrenaline would send their blood pressure through the roof, the immune system shuts down in order to conserve energy, and all functions related to growth and reproduction stop.
We’ve come a long way since Flintstones days, but despite iPhones and indoor plumbing, our bodies still react the same way to perceived stress.
Even though you won’t literally die from failing that ochem test, your body still prepares itself for attack— by sending your brain signals to eat that whole bag of popcorn. And a bagel. And half a pan of brownies.
Evolutionary instincts are pretty hard to change, but there are a few ways to minimize how much food you stuff in your face during finals.
For one thing, minimize stress. Even just a few minutes a day can make a big difference to overall stress levels—take a yoga class, go for a run, paint your nails, whatever works for you. Second, a little bit of planning can make a big difference. If you know you have two tests and a paper due all at the same time, write the paper early and start studying for the tests well ahead of time.
And if despite everything, you’re still stressed (don’t worry, you’re not alone), stress eat smart—eat vegetables. That way, when you finish your third snack in 20 minutes, you can cross “eat healthy” off your to-do list and feel like you’ve at least accomplished something.