We’re wired to eat when we’re under stress. Evolutionarily, that was a good thing. If you needed to escape a dangerous situation, high calories would give you the energy to do it; but in today’s modern society, the stress-food response no longer works in your favor. “Every time you reach for food when you’re stressed, you deepen the wiring,” says Mary Dallman, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor emerita at the University of California, San Francisco. To compound the problem, the release of stress hormones causes a surge of insulin, which turns extra calories into belly fat, says Dallman. A recent Harvard study found that the most common triggers for stress-related weight gain are work and bills. In men, hot buttons include feeling a lack of authority, and in women, family pressures and perceived life constraints.

Overcome it

Distinguish between stress-induced cravings and true hunger. Pause, take a few breaths, and look for physical signs of hunger, such as a growling stomach, low energy, or difficulty concentrating, says May. If they’re not there, scan your thoughts and emotions and ask, “Am I anxious, guilty, sad, or stressed?”

Have a glass of water. If you experience what Fikkan calls “mouth hunger” without feeling hunger in your belly, you may be thirsty. “Hydrating first may help you distinguish between thirst and hunger.”

Check in after snacking. Dallman and May both say it’s OK to reach for a snack when you’re under pressure; the trick is to know you’re doing it and assess the outcome. “If you eat two cookies and your craving isn’t satisfied, then you know the craving did not come from real hunger,” says May. Next time try a different solution.

Take a walk or make a phone call. When you’re at work, it may be quicker and more socially acceptable to grab a snack when you need to unwind than to take a time-out, says Fikkan, but this can take a toll on your waistline—and your health—over time. It also limits your repertoire of skills to deal with stress, she says.