We’ve all experienced the emotional eating response to stress and overwhelm, with the following feelings of regret, shame, and lowered self-esteem.
First let’s clarify that ‘emotional eating’, or trying to regulate emotions with food, can be on a spectrum from forms of disordered eating which range from restriction and control, bingeing, purging, avoidance etc. to a simple momentary comfort or gain for control.
Most of us live on this spectrum, but understand that there is a history and complexity to each individual situation. Some more extreme cases should be handled by a registered dietician, nutrition, counsellor, or therapist.
Food is a great way to self-medicate. It’s readily available, legal, it tastes good, and it makes us feel better immediately (even though only for a short time). Food is comforting and soothing (some call it momentary mouth pleasure). Food also has strong emotional associations; It can remind you of home, childhood, travelling, relationships, and holidays.
I’d like to point out that using food to feel good and to sometimes stop feeling bad isn’t a problem on its own. Almost all of us do it sometimes. It’s perfectly normal and makes sense.
Problems can arise when regulating emotions with food starts happening regularly (e.g. daily). We feel out of control, or compelled to do it; we can’t or don’t stop eating when we’re satisfied; we harm ourselves from eating too much or not enough, and we don’t have other ways of creating connection, comfort or managing our feelings.
Being able to regulate your emotions without food or eating is a skill. One that can be honed and developed over time.
So how do we develop this skill of regulating our emotions without food or eating?
With a practice and some possible action steps.
Practice Option 1:
Identify physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts and their connection to food and eating.
Some clients may know they manage their feelings through food. They may think they have no willpower or need accountability, or they’re not motivated enough. Others may not recognise it as a form of emotional coping. Even if you are aware, you may not know how to stop or what to do instead.
- Do a mind-body scan
This is a common mindfulness technique and involves simply ‘scanning’ the body from head to toe, noticing physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Many people do not recognise their thoughts, feelings or experiences as they occur. Getting in the habit of ‘checking in’ helps you notice and name what is actually going on instead of unconsciously reacting. This is a great place to start even if you don’t change the behaviour just yet.
This short 5-minute exercise can help you notice indicators like:
- What physical sensations am I noticing?
- What emotions and feelings am I experiencing?
- What thoughts or mental scripts are happening?
This can help you slow down automatic behaviours, to feel less overwhelmed by compulsions and improve your ability to make thoughtful choices.
2. Identify Common Triggers
- Angry (or Anxious)
When you notice an urge to eat emotionally (or restrict eating), pause and ask yourself if you’re feeling any of the above. These aren’t the only reasons for emotional eating, but they are common. This can lead into other options.
3. Start a Food and Feelings Journal
Tracking food is a common method for becoming more aware of the foods you eat; the quality, amounts etc. A simple way to create more awareness on the emotional eating side is to jot down thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations you have at meal times (or times you’re deliberately skipping meals, purging or compensating with exercise).
Practice Option 2:
Separate urges from behaviours
To help us make better choices with emotional eating we want to separate the automatic urge to do something from actually doing it. When we slow down, we give ourselves more time and space to separate a ‘do this now!’ thought to a conscious and wise ‘what’s best for me now?’, or ‘what am I feeling now?’ thought.
- Come up with alternatives and implement them
Once you’ve figured out what you’re seeking with the emotional eating behaviour (e.g. to calm down, have fun, connecting with others) try and come up with a list of alternatives that will work for you, such as:
- Taking a walk
- Listening to music
- Call a friend
- Doing something creative or hands-on
- Relaxation techniques (Breath-work/Yoga)
- Practice a movement you enjoy (Dancing)
Come up with your own or choose one or two options above. Jot down some thoughts on how it went or what you noticed about the experience.
- Think on a continuum
‘What might be a slightly better choice here? Why?’
‘What choice do I feel able to make right now? Why?’
Here at PGPT we want you to make better choices for your health and longevity. This requires you to make small steps along a continuum rather than trying to do everything perfectly. Asking simple questions like this can help you manage your emotional eating and make healthier decisions that can help you lose weight, improve overall health markers and most importantly sustain it for a lifetime.
Yours Stress Freely,
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