Weaken the Cycle of Emotional Eating

When people first come to see me they often report, “I know how to eat, I just can’t get myself to do it.”

These people are often frustrated and judge themselves harshly for what they perceive to be a lack of willpower. While we may have the facts, decisions about what, when and how much to eat also involve emotions and other physiological drives.

Emotional eating is a term often used to describe eating that is influenced by emotions, both positive and negative. Feelings may influence your motivation to eat, your food choices, where, when and with whom you eat, and the speed with which you eat.

Here are some examples of what emotional eating might look like:

  • Eating to soothe or reward yourself after a long day
  • Eating during or following a stressful event
  • Turning to food to stuff feelings of anger
  • Eating to procrastinate
  • Eating to numb feelings or forget your worries
  • Secretive eating
  • Eating quickly and mindlessly without really tasting the food
  • Grazing on food when you are not particularly hungry
  • Eating that feels uncontrollable or very difficult to stop
  • Frequently craving and eating foods you think of as “comfort foods” 
  • Eating to celebrate or as the primary source of adding joy to your life
  • Continuing to eat when you know you are moderately full

Many people eat in an attempt to self-soothe or to momentarily escape painful thoughts or feelings. Emotional eating is often related to feelings of inadequacy that we don’t know how to manage. When emotions become hard to handle, many people feel like they don’t have the skills to cope and eating seems like the best option available to them at the time.

I used to turn to comfort foods often as a way to manage stress. It was quick and improved my mood almost immediately and with little effort. Sounds good, right? Wrong! Think about your own experience. Does turning to food provide you with true or lasting relief? Most people tell me that the relief they experience is fleeting and is often followed by self-recriminations and guilt which often triggers more eating and thoughts like, “I blew it; I’m a failure.”

As a first step to weaken the cycle of emotional eating, just notice your emotions before and after eating. Do your best to be as nonjudgmental as possible. Take a “just the facts” approach so you can gather important information.  Recall a situation in which you recently overate where you believe emotions were the primary trigger. You might want to jot down in a notebook the answers to the following questions:

  1. What was the circumstance? Where was I, who was I with, had something recently happened that might have prompted the urge to escape feelings through food?  
  2. Was I more vulnerable to eating due to something in me (fatigue) or the environment (appetizing food in view or in the pantry)?
  3. What was I feeling and/or thinking? What sensations was I aware of in my body?
  4. How did the emotions or thoughts affect my eating?
  5. How did I feel physically, mentally and emotionally after eating?

When you begin to notice the feelings, thoughts, and other aspects of your eating experiences, you are taking a step back and getting more perspective on your triggers. When you practice gaining perspective, your behavior will become less impulsive. Over time, you will become able to say things like, “Oh look, I’m really angry and I want to go munch on cookies.” From there you will have the choice to learn a new way to cope with the anger rather than feeling controlled by it.     




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What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention without judgment to the thing that’s the most important for you to be effective in the present moment.

It may sound complicated, but in certain situations, you’re probably being mindful already without noticing it.

For example, I’m being mindful right now. Here on my desk are cards I need to send out, a CD that’s supposed to remind me to call a friend, and of course my computer with my e-mail program, the Internet, and the potentially infinite number of distractions it offers. Even the parakeet is chirping for attention. But the thing that’s most important for me to be effective right now is writing this blog. So I intentionally focus on it. When something distracts me, I bring my attention back.

Your senses bring more information into your brain than your conscious mind can possibly absorb. Your nervous system is constantly filtering out low-priority information. Typically, your mind is occupied to some degree with chattering thoughts; sometimes called “the monkey mind.” It is perfectly normal to experience mind chatter. Chattering thoughts may recede into the background when you’re concentrating on a project. They may grow to overwhelming proportions when you’re bored or have nothing to do.

Your job is to observe these thoughts, and yet continue to bring your attention back to the most important thing, the thing that will make you most effective in this moment.

When you pay attention without judgment, without listening to the monkey mind’s complaints or criticisms, you increase the capacity of your conscious mind. Then when you intentionally return your attention to the most important thing, you have extra capacity for new and valuable information that will help you be more effective.

To get the best information about how to manage yourself in the present moment, all you have to do is intentionally focus on your body’s signals, including your thoughts and emotions, and recognize their ebb and flow.

Watch the Ebb and Flow

It’s a fact of life that things always change and pass. Even a headache is not steady state. If you can put off grabbing the ibuprofen for a few moments and just observe, you’ll find your headache gets stronger one moment, weaker the next, and then back to stronger or maybe something in between. It ebbs and flows.

The better you get at listening to the ebb and flow of what’s going on in your body—whether you’re hot or cold, confident or unsure, tired or raring to go—the better you’ll get at recognizing and meeting your own wants and needs. 

If you’re like most people, you probably use food at least on occasion to manage your discomfort, both physical and emotional. You might even have come to depend on food to keep your nervous system stable, balanced and comfortable. The more extreme your discomfort, the more vulnerable you become to compensate with emotional eating.

So avoid the extremes! When you listen to your body’s messages throughout the day, you’ll be aware of when you’re getting hungry, lonely, angry or tired so you can intervene and take care of yourself before any of these conditions become overwhelming. Become mindful so you can get the information you need to manage your discomforts effectively.

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