The Witching Hour

When Stress Leads to Too Much Munching

“The term Witching Hour refers to the time of day and night … when creatures such as witches, demons, and ghosts are thought to appear and to be at their most powerful … It may be used to refer to any arbitrary time of bad luck or in which something bad has a greater likelihood to occur … ” (Wikipedia)

For overeaters the Witching Hour is when food cravings are strongest, usually afternoon or evening — after we’ve worked all day — but we haven’t worked out yet. I’m fine at work — it’s after work that I binge. Or, I don’t think about food all day, but I can’t stop thinking about it at night. Even those who work from home can end up in the pantry before they realize they’re relieving stress. What the stress is about is crucial to understand, but so is recognizing the when. Perhaps we’ve had a troubling interaction at work (and fear we’ll be fired), or we’re home (alone) again, or we’re on deadline to finish a project (and secretly fear we can’t do it). Just listening to the news nowadays can be a stressful event!

The Witching Hour haunts us when we’re feeling vulnerable, tempting us to binge.

Overeaters know these “should I or shouldn’t I,” let’s-make-a-deal moments cast a powerful spell. Hence, the Witching Hour is not the safest time to rely on “willpower.” Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal, in a TED blog, discusses the limitations of willpower: “Everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort.”

Here’s the reality: it takes willpower to get up in the morning, commute to work, and put in long hours at the desk. It takes willpower to resist holiday treats (everywhere in office settings). It takes willpower to meet deadlines, be a responsible partner or parent, and squeeze in some self care. At a certain point our reserves are sapped, and a reward seems appropriate. It’s no accident that Happy Hour is such a culturally accepted custom! No, I’m not recommending the bar scene, but consider this: At least Happy Hour provides social interaction.

Not so with the Witching Hour. In all my years as a binge eater, I never once stumbled across a communal “hot fudge sundae” bar, filled with jolly overeaters reveling in whipped cream and cherries. Most overeaters indulge in isolation, followed by intense self-recrimination and counterproductive rationalization: “Well, I ate it, so why bother to exercise?” Or “I’ve blown it now, so I might as well have more.” The fallout after a food binge includes a “hangover” – the belly-over-belt type.

Since the Witching Hour strikes when our defenses are down, creating Plan A (for activity) helps defuse Plan B (for binge). Experts say breaking the binge cycle is the most important step in overcoming overeating. Planning alternative activities — especially ones that include others — can be very helpful.

“One of the things I always encourage people to do, is to not try to do things alone and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit,” says McGonigal. “If it’s exercising, you should be doing it with a family member, a friend, a coworker. Or sign up for a series of classes after work. Because then, it’s like a bigger pool of possible willpower.”

Another thing McGonigal suggests is to pair something you don’t necessarily want to do with something you like to do. For instance, I like to sightsee, so I power walk on State Street, taking in the sights and sounds. The key is to plan activities that offer camaraderie and accountability.

Laura Hout is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist intern.

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