4 Ways to Breathe Through Overeating Urges

Discover the science behind your urge to overeat and how the breath can counter it. Here’s your holiday-party, Thanksgiving-table, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.
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Discover the science behind your urge to overeat and how the breath can counter it. Here’s your holiday-party, Thanksgiving-table, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.
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We hope everyone fully enjoys the holidays and treats themselves on occasion, but do you feel the urge to overindulge regularly or throughout an entire season? Discover the science behind that drive in Hunger, Hope, and Healingby Sarahjoy Marshand learn how to counter it with your breath. Here’s your holiday-party, Thanksgiving-table, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.

Each year as the holidays approach, my students—and people everywhere—find themselves facing food dilemmas. These aren’t limited to whether to serve cranberry sauce or not. No, the sorts of dilemmas my students face are the ones that can downward spiral into surges of regret and despair, spike into anxiety and panic, and may last for hours, overnight, or even careen out of control for months (Halloween candy started in September!). While the lure of the New Year taunts with its tempting resolutions, the kinds of resolutions that promise retribution, re-centering, and, yes, some weight loss, I am honored to teach my students how to better navigate the holiday season on behalf of their sanity, health, and vitality.

For any of us who’ve struggled with food or body image, the holidays become peak times for stress. Our vulnerability to our usual triggers may heighten. Our thoughts (“I’ll eat nothing all day because of that party tonight with all the appetizers and the buffet”) may be in conflict with our wisdom (“Maintaining balanced blood sugar makes my moods more stable. I’ll be more present if I’m not starving myself all day and feeling frenzied about indulgences at the party”).

The Science of Stress Eating

As we try to manage feelings, thoughts, fears, and stressors, our primitive brains are wired to come to our rescue by activating our “Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Submit” strategies in the face of threat (which very well may be tantalizing pie and eggnog, as opposed to a pacing mountain lion).

The Fight reaction is aggressive like a dog barking or attacking. Flight helps us escape, much like a cat fleeing a loud noise. Freeze immobilizes our decision-making as we stunned by a threat, like a deer in headlights. And submit mimics resignation or death, much like possums.

With food “dangers,” the brain employs these same hard-wired primitive reactions. We fight with ourselves—often experienced as the ruthless voice of the inner critic. We flee by taking leave of our body, our wisdom, or our self-care. We freeze when we brace against and clench in reaction to our inner or outer experience. And we submit when we collapse again to behaviors we later regret.

Although these reactions are biologically programmed to protect us, many of us have learned to over-rely on them even when there is no real threat to our biological survival. Feeling mentally, emotionally, or psychologically threatened (i.e., stressed) also triggers them. (The holiday season has countless triggers—small and large!) Shame and addiction set us up to feel threatened much more easily and frequently. This becomes a cycle to which we unknowingly acclimate. Our brain and body chemistry then promote anxiety, depression, and even food cravings. Getting a handle on how to shift this mind-body reaction empowers us to reduce our vulnerability and increase our resilience.

Why the Breath Is Your Best Intervention

The Fight-Flight-Freeze-Submit patterns are directly associated with particular breathing responses. The fight and flight reactions trigger the secondary respiration muscles—those meant for an actual physical emergency that would require our ability to ward off or run away from a predator. The freeze and submit reactions reduce breathing to shallow sips of air (mimicking death in life-threatening scenarios and encouraging a predator to lose interest).

The good news for yogis? Simple pranayama exercises can act as a direct antidote to these reactions. Shifting our breathing pattern back to diaphragmatic breathing—the breath of the relaxation response—reduces anxiety and calms both mind and body, shutting down the fight-flight-freeze-submit circuitry. By shifting how we breathe, we can regain leadership, confidence, and clarity.

See also The Science of Breathing

4 Breathing Practices to Outsmart the Stress-Eating Circuitry

If you practice the following pranayama exercises on a daily basis, your body-mind circuitry will be better able to rely on these antidotes. If you only practice when you get triggered, the techniques will still be potent but will require more fervency from you to remember them, do them, and stick with them until the reaction dissolves and the remedy works.