Boredom as Stressor


Stress triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, and it doesn’t even require a stressor as obvious as a pinched tail. Boredom is a little-recognized and under-appreciated stressor, which many children and adults intuitively self-medicate by chewing gum. The advantage of gum is that the chewer does not swallow very many calories. The price may be tooth decay, the disapproval of others, or punishment for chewing in inappropriate settings. The reward stems from the fact that chewing is a displacement activity that relieves stress.

Chewing food can encompass all the stress-relieving rewards of gum-chewing, and add hundreds of calories. Overeating, as we have seen, can be an addiction. Jacob Sullum took a second look at the research that made big news in 1998, concerning rats and monkeys that would self-administer cocaine in preference to food and water, until they died of self-neglect. Similar experiments were performed with other drugs. Sullum wrote:

But the animals in these studies were isolated from other animals, deprived of interesting stimuli, and prevented from engaging in normal behavior while tethered to catheters providing “an unlimited, direct flow of high concentrations of cocaine at all times at little or no cost” (in terms of effort)…Laboratory animals’ tendency to consume drugs to excess when they are bored and lonely has pretty clear parallels in human behavior.

An animal in solitary confinement, in an impoverished environment, with its consciousness bludgeoned by sensory deprivation, will take drugs or overeat, using food as a drug. This conviction is echoed by Andrew Hill, PhD:

If there’s lots of rat toys, and lots of other cute rats hanging out, they’re much less interested in becoming (cocaine) addicts. Only in the absence of stimulating enriched environments, do these sort of automatic behaviors take over.

Boredom and lack of ability to tolerate boredom (..) is often the biggest driver for problematic substance abuse.

For an easily assimilated account of the Rat Park experiments, see this “graphic novel” type of presentation by Stuart McMillen. Other research observing monkeys has shown similar results. Pieter Levels proposes that, in various ways, society has created many different versions of the deprived rats’ cages, and adds:

So it’s no wonder so many people flock to alcohol and drug abuse in the weekends. Daily life itself simply doesn’t offer enough stimuli to satisfy their brains.

The fact that boredom can be a stressor for humans is widely acknowledged. For instance, discussing sugar addiction, Eliza Barclay recommends taking the time to monitor exactly when food cravings are liable to strike. Once you figure that out, she says:

Then figure out what the cues are—like stress, boredom, emotional downers or the need for a distraction. In these moments when the cravings hit, pause and think about what you need or do not need to eat at the moment. Are you actually hungry? Can you fulfill the need another way, like taking a quick walk?

There are many additional ways to counteract cravings, all gathered together in one place by Dr. Pretlow’s W8Loss2Go smartphone application.

As the old saying goes, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Research Shows That Cocaine and Heroin Are Less Addictive Than Oreos,”, 10/16/13
Source: “JRE #629 – Andrew Hill,”, 03/24/15
Source: “Rat Park,”, undated
Source: “Our society is not in line with our natural reward systems, and alcohol and drug abuse proves it,”, April 2015
Source: “Is Sugar Addiction Why So Many January Diets Fail?,”, 01/09/14
Image: by Gregg O’Connell


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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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