If you’re an emotional eater, you probably recognize your tendency to drift toward food when you’re stressed or distressed, which serves neither your appetite, weight, nor ability to take care of yourself emotionally. The first step is to understand that we have emotions for a reason—really, they’re not just there to plague us. Emotions evolved to help us move away from pain and toward pleasure. Like our senses, they’re there to guide us through life, to help us stay alive and thrive.
Emotions are nothing more than chemical messengers. Like incoming texts, emails, faxes, and phone calls, they’re sending you information about your interactions with life around you. When you understand the purpose of emotions, it’s easier to know which ones to pay attention to and which ones to discard. By learning and practicing some simple do’s and don’ts, you’ll find yourself turning less to feeding and more to feeling.
Do identity and understand what you are feeling
If you want to know what information your emotions are transmitting to you, you will need to take a minute to figure that out. Rather than call yourself upset, nail down exactly what the emotion is. Here are some common ones that trigger emotional eating: anxiety, guilt, shame, remorse, disappointment, loneliness, confusion, uncertainty, and helplessness. Take time to understand not only what you’re feeling, but the roots of why you’re feeling it.
To identify your emotions, you also need to be curious about what you’re feeling. You know how you can’t wait to read that text or email or listen to your phone messages? That’s the attitude you want to have about emotions. Be welcoming to observe what they have to say. Listen hard to assess what they’re telling you so you can then decide what to do with them. Pay attention if they’re about current reality or ignore them if they’re simply the byproduct of recycling painful memories.
Why do you fear experiencing intense emotion? Of course, no one enjoys feeling disappointed or ashamed, but these feelings are normal and not something to run from. Explore your attitude about emotions and where it comes from. Most people who fear intense affect never learned how to bear it. Maybe they had too much of it as children and felt overwhelmed, and maybe they never learned from adequate parental role models how to manage feelings effectively. Make a list of positive beliefs about the value of even the most distressing emotions and read them aloud in front of a mirror every day.
Do learn emotional management skills
Emotional management is a skill, so consider how well you were taught and how you will acquire it. People aren’t born either skillful at handling feelings or not. We’re all learning some life skills in adulthood, and most of them have to do with managing feelings. You are not alone. Consider people you know who negotiate feelings well and identify why that is. Recognize that you will want to do two things: build internal resources to tolerate emotions on your own as well as develop a strong, comfortable ability to seek others out to comfort you. Many people pick and use only one strategy, but both are necessary for successful affective management.
If you listen and pay attention to your feelings all the time, you will avoid and prevent the kinds of crises that throw you into a tizzy and send you speeding off to the cookie jar. If you pick up vibes that you’re not going to be happy in your job, pay them heed before you hate dragging yourself there and become desperate to quit. If you sense that your new love isn’t what he or she seemed to be at first, attend to your doubts so you don’t get yourself in too deep or get badly hurt. By listening to your emotions along the way, you’ll lead a life with fewer crises and more emotional balance, which will decrease intense emotions and urges to comfort yourself with food.
Do recognize when you are in recall or reality
The amygdala is the primary brain structure that houses our fearful memories. These memories are there to alert us to situations that are similar to ones in which we were threatened or harmed in the past. If Mom or Dad shamed you every time you made a mistake, when you make a mistake in adulthood, you may feel intense shame and therefore never want to take risks because making errors makes you feel defective. But, really, who cares? We all should expect to make mistakes. Whenever you’re feeling intense affect out of proportion to a current situation, you know you’ve activated a memory. When you feel wounded, assess your current situation for actual threat or harm potential. Most of the time, we’re fine even when our memories tell us we’re not.
Do learn to self-soothe
When you’re stressed or distressed, you know you’ll feel better when you tamp down your emotions and feel calm again. I call this going from emotional disregulation to emotional regulation. Stress and upset cause our nervous systems to go awry and what we’re looking for when we eat is to re-regulate our neurology. Find other approaches to do this: deep breathing, listening to music, reading a good book, practicing meditation, walking in nature, playing with your dog or cat, having a good cry, gardening, or calling a friend.
Do develop the ability to contain and share emotions
Too many people pick only one coping strategy to deal with intense emotions. They either go it alone and never share their vulnerabilities with others or they head right to others to help them feel better. Your goal should be to be competent using both approaches. There’s nothing wrong with using your own resources to soothe yourself. Doing so will make you feel more confident and proud of yourself. It will raise your self esteem. Equally, however, reaching out to others will help you feel validated and that other people can be trusted to understand what you’re going through. You’re not burdening others and there are people out there who can help you get back your equilibrium when you’re knocked off course.
Do pay attention to your “stress” level
Stress is the perception of overload. Know your limits and also recognize that just because you’re busy with a great many tasks to do, doesn’t mean you have to be stressed. Be careful about saying, “I’m so stressed,” which will ratchet up its intensity. Instead, note that you have a to do list and prioritize what you can reasonably get done. Make a list of what to do when you are stressed which will really de-stress you. And remember that non-hunger eating will actually do the opposite of calm you down when you’re done.
Do not reinforce painful emotions
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re stressed or distressed is to repeat to themselves, “I am so upset, This is awful, I’m overwhelmed, I can’t stand what I’m feeling, This is unbearable, etc.” Why, pray tell, would you order yourself to feel worse than you’re already feeling? Because the brain does what you tell it to do, stop telling yourself how miserable you are and you won’t be so miserable. The key is to tell yourself how you wish to feel, not how you do.
Do not run away from feelings
Because there are emotions you’ll want to pay attention to and those you won’t, you’ll need to make conscious choices about them which you can’t do if you’re trying to ignore or bury them. It’s merely an emotion, not a death sentence, so take time to figure out what’s going on within rather than immediately shooing upsetting feelings away.
Do not assume you can’t bear what you’re experiencing
You may have had difficulties tolerating emotional discomfort as a child (we all do), but that needn’t hold true for you as an adult. Because humans are meant to have feelings, we are also meant to be able to bear them. Think of yourself as tough and resilient, not weak and vulnerable, and watch your ability to experience your emotions deepen and broaden. Nothing bad will happen to you and you’ll feel proud that you’re growing mentally healthier.
Do not give into eating at the first hint of emotional disturbance
If you generally seek out food as soon as you’re emotionally uncomfortable, by now you have deep neural pathways between the two and will want to weaken them so they can die off. By not eating at the first twinge of stress or distress, you’ll learn to build emotional muscle. What’s the worst that will happen when you’re feel badly? Is it really more terrible than how your heart, mind and body will feel after a binge? Thinking you’re more powerful than your cravings will make you stronger.
Rather than think about how good you’re going to feel snarfing down a sweet or treat, consider how you’re going to feel afterwards. Have you ever felt better after a binge? Tell yourself how you do feel after you have one. Is non-hunger eating something that’s going to help you improve your life? Look to your experiences to correct your wishful thinking. Work on changing your beliefs about the facts of emotional eating.
Do not spend time in memories of upsetting events or painful feelings
One of the major reasons people turn to food for comfort is when they feel guilt, shame, remorse, or doubt. You can’t turn back the clock and redo something that’s already happened. No one can. That event is gone, over, past, and done with, so your feelings about it are superfluous and irrelevant once you’ve analyzed (which is not ruminating) what happened. If you feel badly about something you did yesterday, learn from the experience, then let that feeling go. The feeling belongs with your memory of it, not with the present.
Do not make judgments about feelings
Sometimes it’s not being upset which drives you to food, but having what are called secondary emotions, that is, negative judgments about feelings, such as shame about relief when your parents hit the road after an uncomfortable, overly long visit, or guilt about taking time for yourself while your kids are parked in front of the TV. All feelings are fair game, like notes and colors. They are only information. Watch out for being judgmental about what you’re experiencing affectively. Replace judgments with compassion. Doesn’t self-compassion feel so much better than self-denigration?
Basically, turning to food when you’re upset is less an eating problem and more an emotional one. If you never learned effective emotional management skills as a child, it’s time to learn them now. You need them even if you don’t have eating problems because this is a competency we all require in life. When you view emotions as being valuable and manage them better, your cravings for food when you’re upset will lessen. Success takes time and practice, but anyone can learn to break the feelings-food connection.
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