Rethink your stress and eat less - The effect of positive reappraisal on stress-induced eating

Rethink your stress and eat less - The effect of positive reappraisal on stress-induced eating

My project aimed to extend the existing literature on stress-induced eating by investigating whether positive stress appraisal (SA) (i.e. generating a stress-is-enhancing mindset) compared to negative SA (generating a stress-is-debilitating mindset) could reduce the consumption of palatable high-sugar, high-fat food in response to acute stress. It was predicted that participants encouraged to negatively appraise stress would consume more food compared to the participants encouraged to positively appraise stress following a stress-provoking experience. 

Participants were randomly allocated to either the experimental group (positive SA) or an active control group (negative SA) following the condition manipulation employed by Crum, Akinola, Martin and Fath (2017). Stress appraisal was induced via presentation of three short videoclips promoting either the enhancing properties (positive SA group) or the deleterious properties (negative SA group) of stress on health/well-being, performance and learning/growth. 

Following the SA induction, participants were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Task (TSST), a psychosocial stressor which consists of a public speaking and a mental arithmetic task in front of an evaluative audience. To measure eating behaviour, participants completed a bogus “taste test” in which they were presented with three pre-weighted bowls of foods (cookies, crisps, gummi bears) that they were asked to rate on the basic taste criteria. Within this test, participants were also asked to report current hunger level, liking and frequency of consumption of the test foods. Further measures included a demographics questionnaire, the State Trait Anxiety Questionnaire for adults (STAI-AD) and the Three Factor Eating Questionnaire – revised 18. 

Outcome and Impact of the project 

The project hopefully benefitted all participants as they received the materials that were used in the positive SA condition and were encouraged to take part in the free Rethink stress online course. The acquisition of a positive SA mindset has been shown to be an effective stress coping method and may help participants to manage future stressors and enhance performance, productivity and learning in the face of acute stress. 

The project allowed to draw conclusions about the potential utility of positive reappraisal as a means of helping people overcome habitual stress eating via efficient stress management. The hypothesised effect of the positive SA condition on reduction of stress-induced eating was not supported. However, it is worth noting that the results reveal a trend in the predicted direction: the positive SA group did eat less (89.15 kcal) than the negative SA group. The reason the difference did not reach significance may be due to the small sample size of the study in comparison to similar studies within the field and consideration of the expected small effect size. 

Specific training and skill development 

The design and initiation of the project required a thorough literature search and self-directed study within the field of stress management, nutrition science and obesity, allowing me to gain in-depth knowledge within these fields. I was able to establish interdisciplinary connections between psychology and other disciplines, including nutrition and health sciences. Forging these interdisciplinary connections enabled me to further my understanding of the underlying factors of mental and physical health which I aim to apply in my further career as a health psychology researcher. By designing the project and writing the research report, I fostered my academic writing skills, specifically the ability to clearly document my thought process using concise language. 

The development of codes in Matlab (to score the questionnaires) and the employment of correlational and ANOVA analyses in SPSS allowed me to acquire sophisticated data analysis skills. I also taught myself how to use SNAP surveys to design online questionnaires. 

Personal benefit of the project in regards to research ambitions and further studies 

Even though I never led a research project myself, I felt confident that I would master this challenge with dedicated hard work, enjoyment of the unfolding research process and the support of my experienced supervisor Dr Schnitzspahn. My research proposal served as the foundation for the study design, including its procedure and measurement, which I refined and simplified multiple times while preserving the most relevant aspects of the study. One challenge I faced during the initial phases of the study implementation was the completion of the ethics application as the project raised ethical considerations such as the induction of stress and deceptive cover story (bogus taste test). I gained expertise in psychological research ethics in order to adapt the methodology of the study to minimise potential discomfort and inconveniences for the participants such as offering meditation and breathing exercises. 

Participant recruitment during the quiet summer period was an obstacle to finishing the project in a timely manner which I overcame by actively recruiting participants in person around campus, approaching students and handing out flyers. Trough engagement with other research interns and PhD students within the department, I fostered my scientific communication and networking skills and now feel confident to give presentations about future projects at conferences. The project, while enabling me to acquire the specific skills outlined in the previous section, tremendously fostered my personal development and confidence in taking up a career in research while increasing my motivation to do. I felt in love with the entire process of research, particularly the design of the project and the interpretation of the results as they require creative, critical and original thinking. 

I would like to express my gratitude for being given this opportunity and my deep appreciation for the award which allowed me to grow personally, academically and professionally and thus, prepared me to excel in my further studies and to become the competent researcher I aspire to be. I feel honoured to having been involved in the research within the school of psychology of the University of Aberdeen, and I am looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for this department and its research with the wider research community and the general public. 

Leah Hillari graduated in July 2020 with an MA in Psychology

Published by The School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen


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