When you feel upset, angry or sad, you tend to eat to soothe yourself, calm down or just to avoid bad feelings. This is what generally is called emotional eating or, sometimes, stress eating. However, emotional eating is in a sense different from stress eating.
What emotional eating means
Emotional eating means eating in response to any kind of feeling, even pleasant ones like joy, happiness and nice surprises, while stress eating means consuming food in response to feeling overwhelmed or upset. The cause of stress eating is a very low tolerance for distress. People cannot tolerate bad feelings at all and turn to pick-me-up fixes to get them soothed.
Sometimes people eat because it makes them feel good about themselves, in order to enhance self-esteem. They like so much the feeling that they don’t want to stop. Sometimes, eating is just a way to procrastinate. I don’t start to prepare for final exam because I have to eat.
Emotional eating symptoms
Emotional eating involves a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over again: bad feelings, need soothing, need food, feel relief, feel good, feel guilt, bad feelings, need soothing. This vicious cycle shows that eating problems aren’t really about food intake, but rather about self-soothing.
Typically, self-soothing means turning to something that fix quickly the bad feelings: food, TV, gambling, alcohol, work, the Internet, sex, relationships or drugs. For a short time, these activities can take the edge off feeling stressed. In the long run, however, they are temporary solutions that actually can become addictions.
If you’re not sure you suffer from emotional eating, here are some indications that you may be using food to avoid facing your feelings:
- Craving food or snacks starts up from feeling any emotion, whether positive or negative.
- Experiencing a great sense of relief while you are eating.
- Chewing something feels good.
- Eating soothes or numbs you out.
- Continuing to eat even when it feels like it will never be enough.
- Feeling an intense need for something good tasting inside your mouth.
- Eating foods you don’t even like because they are there and you need comfort.
- Overeating at important or stressful events like Christmas parties, birthday parties or family reunions.
According to the attachment theory, our primary caregivers were the first people to teach us self-soothing ourselves. Anytime we cried as a baby born, we were comforted by being fed first. Only if we strongly refused he food, did our parents look for other reasons why we were crying. As a toddler, when we fell down and scraped our knee, we begin to internalize the caring and calming words parents used say while they are picking us up.
The same way, as an adult, when we experience some problems, conflicts or an emotional pitfall, we’re likely to have a repertoire of calming and soothing words that we use to talk ourselves out of bad feelings. Here are some techniques to deal with your emotional eating:
- Take control over your thoughts if you want to change your emotional eating habits. It may take a lot of hard work to break your mental link between food and comfort, but it eventually pay off. You need to fill your mind with comforting and relaxing thoughts and ideas, that way you lower the odds that you’ll turn to food to deal with intense emotions or stressing situations. For instant, think of a positive moment in your life, how full of joy you were and how much meant for you. Go back in time in your mind and feel the same.
- Turn to narrative therapy, a branch of psychotherapy that address psychological problems with the power of journaling.The theory is based on the power of externalizing your negative feelings, writing them down. If you do that everyday, you’ll learn to look at them from a different perspective. Negative feelings that escape examination are like a strong storm in the ocean, pulling you into despair. Another benefit of journaling (or blogging) is that it can help you to change your perspective over the situation and see it in a more positive and realistic way.
- Talk to a friend when you feel overwhelmed by your emotions. Pick up the telephone and scroll down all of your contacts trying to find out at least one person who is willing to chat with you that very moment. Depends on the relationships with the available person, you may even tell about your emotional eating problem and how you try to avoid eating again. Ask for help to reframe the situation, so you might change your thoughts.
- Occupy your mind with something if nothing else works. Watch a movie, read a book, walk the dog, knit a scarf, paint something.
- Put your worries on an imaginary shelf and take them out only when you’re ready to handle them. Remember that tomorrow is another day. Why do you necessary need to think about your problems right now? Tell yourself that it’s okay to hold on to some of your problems for a while.
- Take an aromatic bath. Before you step into the bath, gather up some soothing bath lotions, bath salts, and good scented oils that send calming aromas to the brain. The olfactory nerve is closely connected to the limbic system, the part of the brain that manages emotion. This means that you may induce soothing feelings just by sending pleasant aromatic scents to your brain.
- Go to a quiet place and meditate over the meaning of your life. Think about what impact your life has on this Earth, what you can do for other people less fortunate than you.
- Connect to the artistic part of your inner Self. Try to discover what you’d like to do to express that hidden part of yourself. Maybe painting, sculpturing, writing, singing or anything else comes to your mind.