When overeating is driven by emotional hunger.
We all enjoy eating and, on occasion, will eat when not hungry or overeat just because the food is incredibly tasty or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. An afternoon out with a good friend is certainly more enjoyable with a vegan treat. What would a good movie be without some airpoped popcorn? There’s nothing wrong with occasionally using food to enhance enjoyment and celebrate life. The problem arises when we use food in this way so often that we are overweight or our health is at risk. If you regularly eat when you’re not hungry, overeat at meals, or choose to eat unhealthy comfort foods more often than you’d prefer, there’s a chance you’re eating has an emotional component to it. A craving—or an exaggerated desire to eat in the absence of true physiological hunger cues—represents an emotional appetite. Emotional hunger often feels the same as physical hunger.
As an emotional eater, you may treat food as a coping tool in a number of ways:
• To dull or tranquilize emotions that are difficult to cope with, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, shame, guilt and even happiness and joy
• To calm yourself when experiencing unpleasant sensations such as nervousness, agitation or muscle tension
• To soothe and comfort yourself
• For pleasure, escape and excitement
• To handle stress
• To silence negative, critical, self-defeating thoughts and quiet your mind
• To manage feeling overwhelmed
• To distract yourself from low-motivation states like boredom, lethargy and apathy
• To procrastinate
• Because your life lacks purpose, meaning, passion or inspiration
• Because you feel so much regret regarding your life
• Because you feel deprived in life and want to have no limits
• To try to fill up an inner emptiness
• To reward or punish yourself
• To rebel against someone or something
• To ward off sexual attention
• To feel safe.
Many emotional eaters believe eating challenges are the result of factors outside their control. Some people simply love food. Some say they have no time to eat healthy and exercise while working full-time and raising a family. Others say there’s constantly unhealthy, high-fat food around them and it’s just too tempt-ing. Others still say that eating healthy in restaurants without off ending others is nearly impossible.
While these factors are reasonable and may play a part in your overeating, they do not represent the true cause of your inability to regulate your intake. Emotional eating highlights a difficulty in connecting to yourself; in paying attention to your mind, body, and spirit signals; and in responding appropriately to meet your needs. It’s a sign that you’re lacking self-care skills that are generally learned in childhood.
No doubt, your emotional eating has helped you cope daily with emotional states like anxiety and depression, general stress and self-defeating thoughts. But it isn’t a very effective long-term strategy for meeting your needs and desires. Not only does it lead to poor health and weight gain, but it also can never be a substitute for learned skills. Unfortunately, you won’t learn more effective self-care skills by going on another diet, either! Focusing on external solutions, such as the latest diet or exercise regimen, is like trying to solve the problem of a stalled train by giving it a new coat of paint and polishing its wheels. No matter how much paint or polish we apply, the train will remain stuck.
We need to access the engine that drives the train and accurately diagnose the problem. It’s our inner world of emotions, sensations, needs and thoughts that drive our behavior. In order to understand and resolve the behavior of emotional eating, we have to tune in to and explore our inner world.
3 STEPS TO ADDRESS YOUR EMOTIONAL EATING
1. ASK YOURSELF: “What am I feeling in this moment?”
Perhaps you just had an argument with your spouse and now all you can think about is ice cream. Pull away from the kitchen and grab pen and paper. Sit upright and ground yourself. Feel your rear in the seat and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Jot down what you’re feeling—both emotions and bodily sensations. Research shows the act of writing down your feelings helps regulate your nervous system and interrupt wayward behaviors. You write that you’re feeling angry, frustrated, hurt, drained, lonely and sad. You notice your head hurts, your shoulders are tense and your stomach is in a knot. Ask the noisy, thought-generating part of your brain to be quiet for a moment. Notice your breathing. Inhale relaxation; exhale tension. Try placing one hand on your heart and one hand on an area of tension. You’re beginning to calm down.
2. ASK YOURSELF “What do I need in this situation?”
See if you can identify a need you can meet yourself, rather than one that involves someone else. For example, rather than writing that you need your spouse to be less reactive, you might write that you need peace and harmony in your relationship. Maybe you need hope that things can improve. It may take some flexibility and creativity. It’s often easier to meet physical needs than emotional needs. The more you let go of rigid expectations, the more you’ll open yourself up to a satisfying solution.
3. TELL YOURSELF “My feelings are valid and my needs can be met.”
Access an inner supportive voice—the mature, wise, kind and loving part of you. Using this voice, jot down a few validating, hopeful statements: “It makes sense to feel hurt and angry when my spouse yells at me. The truth is, we both prefer peace and harmony. Let’s revisit this discussion on the week-end when we’re both more relaxed.” When the urge for food is strong, there is an opportunity to practice
and build new self-care skills. Every time you practice these skills, you’re wiring-in new neural patterns, making it easier to calm and set limits with yourself. If you’ve been looking outside yourself for the loving kindness and nurturance you crave, you will discover that your true source lies within.
BY JULIE M. SIMON