Emotional Eating: What You Need To Know

Picture this: You work hard all day and finally get to your emails to see that you have yet another notice of a missed credit card payment. You may feel frustrated, ashamed, and/or incompetent. Next thing you know, you’ve eaten half a large bag of chips at your computer, while sorting through your bank accounts and again haven’t eaten a proper dinner. That’s emotional eating. What about the family gathering where your mother suggests you skip dessert because your pants are looking tight? You may feel like a failure. Next thing you know, you’ve eaten a double portion of desserts in defiance.  And now the weekend is approaching and your friend tells you she’s going on a romantic getaway with her boyfriend. You doubt your love life will ever be as good.  So you reach for Ben and Jerry’s, the companions who won’t care if you eat the entire pint in one sitting.

Emotional Eating Is Common. 

Does this sound familiar? Your stressors may be completely different, but the result is the same.  Emotional eating is using food to escape difficult emotions such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, loneliness, and shame.  Yes, for me, too. You’re not alone in this!   

The Whole Range of Emotions is Part of the Human Experience  

We understand, intellectually, that experiencing a whole range of emotions is a normal part of life. “Life” and stressors happen. Not feeling OK is OK!  It’s much healthier than denying or pretending everything’s ok when it’s not. But in the moment, some emotions can feel really intolerable. Why do we reach for food, specifically high carb and often high fat foods, when we feel emotional? Because food provides a temporary escape, numbs the feelings, and provides something distracting and enjoyable. Also, high carb, high fat foods feel soothing because of their effect on your brain and mood. Emotional eating is very common.  

What’s Normal & What Requires Mental Health Treatment?

It’s normal to have feelings and to have emotional responses to stressors. But when difficult emotions completely dominate our lives to the point of interfering with self care, relationships, and productivity, a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or other mental health condition may be warranted. No stigma here.  Mental health issues are common and affect people of all kinds. It’s a condition, and by no means a measure of your worthiness or capacity as a person. It’s important to take care of yourself.   

Healthier Ways To Manage Difficult Emotions Than Emotional Eating

Going for a walk, calling a friend, or immersing yourself in a mundane task such as washing dishes can take your mind off things in the moment and can feel helpful. But ultimately, letting yourself feel your feelings will build your emotional tolerance, and over time you’ll be less likely to engage in emotional eating when you feel uncomfortable. One way to do this is to ask yourself, “what am I making the emotion mean?” By noticing your thoughts about your feelings, you can check the facts and ask yourself if it’s true or not.  

Challenging & Reframing Your Thoughts

For example, what if missing a credit card payment does not make you incompetent or worthy of shame, but  means you’re focusing on other things that are more meaningful, like adjusting to your role at work after being promoted. What if your mom’s comment about your pants means that she doesn’t know that you’ve recently started weekly meal planning as a way to eat just what you need. And what if your friend’s upcoming plans can make you curious about the qualities you are looking for in a future relationship and how you can bring those qualities into your relationship with yourself with compassion?  The purpose is not to deny the uncomfortable emotions but rather to get a different perspective and not make the emotions mean anything about who you are as a person.   

Accepting Your Emotions, Whatever They May Be

This is not easy because emotions can feel really uncomfortable and scary. And we often judge ourselves based on our emotions.  And just because you change your thoughts about your emotions doesn’t mean you won’t feel them. However, resisting emotions doesn’t make them go away. They’ll just show up in another form. Then you have to cope with the fear or dread of the emotions plus the emotion itself. Allowing yourself to experience the emotion will allow it to pass. You can handle emotions and it will get easier over time.   

Uncomfortable emotions will keep coming up. So do feelings that can feel more comfortable like joy, excitement, peace, pride, love, and worthiness. We need to allow those, too.  They’re all a normal part of life. But taking control of your thoughts will help you take control of your uncomfortable emotions which will help you take control of your eating and will ultimately help you feel more in control of your life, resulting in making your dreams and desires a reality. Bring on the feelings! 

If you’d like to explore your relationship with food as a coping mechanism, I invite you to sign up for one-on-one or group coaching where we can uncover what’s driving your current thoughts about overeating and from there learn how to channel your emotions into fueling what really matters for you and in your life.  

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