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Stress, Loneliness, and Finding Comfort in Food

How to build resilience and avoid burnout in stressful times.

Key points

  • Almost 50% of workers in the U.S. are experiencing exhaustion due to work.
  • Chronic stress in addition to loneliness can lead to burnout.
  • Loneliness can increase your risk for multiple medical problems and can shorten your life.
Black Brush/Shutterstock
Source: Black Brush/Shutterstock

Stress can trigger emotions if you're someone with body image issues who has been regulating emotions with food. Managing stress without food requires that you learn a new set of skills to use when you’re feeling overwhelmed, worn out, or stressed to the max. Managing stress also requires learning to tap into your body’s wisdom to identify the early warning signs and symptoms of stress, a key first step toward handling it differently. Stress management involves a moment-by-moment mindful awareness that you may not naturally possess but that you can learn.

Stress vs. Burnout

Stress can be difficult to define because it has so many causes and manifests differently for different people. But you know what stress feels like, and you also have probably experienced how stress can wear you down—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. During the pandemic, new stressors such as longer work hours, more demands at home, financial stressors, and fear of getting COVID have led to higher rates of burnout for many people.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms of burnout can include energy depletion or exhaustion, cynicism, feelings of being detached from others, and reduced personal efficacy.

Research done by the authors of The Happiness Track found that almost 50% of people across all professions say they are often or always exhausted by work. This is a 32% increase over 20 years ago. They also found a link between work exhaustion and loneliness: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel.


Loneliness can be defined as the internal perception of inadequate personal relationships. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of both mental and physical health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, stroke, and suicide. Research has also shown that loneliness has a significant negative effect on physical and mental health and can reduce longevity by 70%. Loneliness is thought to affect 35% of the U.S. population and can lead to burnout.

Eating, Stress, and Loneliness

Often food serves the purpose of self-soothing and providing comfort during stressful times. Overeating can increase due to loneliness and burnout. Food has been described by individuals who binge eat or engage in emotional or compulsive eating as "my best friend." Food is often used to numb feelings, including the feeling of loneliness. We also turn to food for nurturing ourselves when we feel lonely.

Addressing stress and loneliness without using food

Resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficult or challenging situations or circumstances. Many people naturally have high levels of resilience that enable them to cope with tough times. However, resilience can also be learned. Here are some ways to become more resilient:

  1. Practice relaxing. Many people with food and body image issues are also driven at work and at home and don't take time to relax. Relaxing helps lower stress hormones that can promote overeating.
  2. Grow your support network. Having people you can turn to for social support at home and at work when you are struggling is one of the best ways to become more resistant to stress and burnout.
  3. Stay physically and emotionally fit. This means doing whatever is necessary to get enough sleep, eat regularly throughout the day, and move your body. Emotional fitness means expressing your emotions in healthy ways, learning skills for emotional regulation, and getting therapy if you find yourself stuck.
  4. Be aware of your thoughts. Listening to how you talk to yourself and changing from negative self-talk to positive or realistically optimistic self-talk is important especially when you're in challenging situations. Don't let negative thoughts derail you.
  5. Be compassionate with yourself. When you are struggling, give yourself a break. Be gentle, and allow yourself to make mistakes without being so hard on yourself.

Think of how a boat can be "self-righting," returning to an upright position in the water after being overturned. Humans can be self-righting as well, getting their lives back on track after a tough period. Building mental, physical, and emotional resilience will enable you to thrive and you can learn new skills to cope with stress and loneliness without turning to food.


  • Ask yourself how close are you to living your best life (imagine a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best life ever).
  • If you're not living your best life, make a list of goals or things you can change to get you closer to it.
  • Add to each thing on your list one specific thing you can do right now that will help reduce your suffering, help you get back on track, or build resilience.


Emma Seppälä. The Happiness Track. 2017. Harper Collins, New York, New York.…

Heinrich LM, Gullone E. The clinical significance of loneliness: a literature review. Clin Psychol Rev 2006;26:695–718.

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