Understanding Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger. Some people eat when they feel stressed, some eat when they’re bored, feeling lonely, angry, frustrated, sad or anxious. Common causes and triggers of emotional eating include:-
~ Our interpretation (or misinterpretation) of situations, events or conversations
~ Procrastination: some people might eat to put off tasks they don’t want to do
~ ‘Feelings phobia’: eating might be a way to take the focus off uncomfortable feelings
~ Negative self-perception (harsh inner critic or self-loathing): binge-eating can be an act of self-harm
~ Unmet needs: the need to fill an emotional void
~ Pleasure-seeking or reward-eating
~ Inability to express feelings and needs- eating instead of communicating
~ Stress: physiological triggers (the stress hormone cortisol can increase appetite) and psychological factors caused by stress can lead us to ‘self-soothe’ (though some people lose their appetite when they’re feeling stressed).
The problem with emotional eating is that it doesn’t solve problems. Emotional eating can actually make us feel worse due feelings of guilt and shame around what has just been eaten. It might become an alternative activity to problem-solving or facing problems. Eating can put a delay between something we don’t want to address and temporarily put us in a bubble or trance- this might help us to temporarily disengage from the world and even help us to feel calm for a moment, as we focus on the process of eating. However, there is often little enjoyment with emotional eating as it’s often mindless, mechanical overeating.
Eating can become compulsive if we’ve got into the habit of eating whenever things get difficult- food is constantly available, so it’s very easy to turn to food.
Emotional Eating Triggered By Responses To Situations
Emotional eating can be set off by a triggering situation. If you think of it like a chain, the chain starts with a trigger (an external event or situation), followed by an emotion in response to that trigger, followed by a message- something which the event and the resulting emotion is telling us about ourselves. That message we receive about ourselves might be unpleasant- something we feel we can’t tolerate. For example, being criticized by your partner might lead to you feeling rejected, and then the message you might get from that is a belief that you’re unlovable or worthless. If we look at emotional eating in this way, it’s clear to see why a person’s self-concept is an important part of tackling emotional eating, and how thoughts affect feelings which affect behaviours.
Emotional Eating As A Long-Term ‘Coping’ Mechanism
It can be easy to link one particular incident with an emotional eating episode. For example, a stressed mother might blame her eating a whole packet of biscuits on the bad behaviour of her child that day. But emotional eating could be more complex than that, and if emotional eating is recurrent, then it’s a sign that perhaps the person is using food as a long-term coping mechanism- perhaps a need is going unfulfilled or not being addressed. Emotional eating can end up being the ‘default’ strategy, whereby food becomes your ‘friend’ and the first thing you turn to whenever you experience an emotional upset. At the same time, if you’re battling to try and control bingeing then food can also be an enemy, where you’re constantly trying to fight the urge to eat- and often lose.
Self-Concept And Emotional Eating
A person’s relationship with others as well as with themselves can influence their relationship with food. When it comes to emotional eating, familiar themes and patterns may come up based on how a person feels about themselves, which can then shape and fuel long-term emotional eating. For this reason, emotional eating is not necessarily related to a specific incident; it can be a reflection of how a person sees themselves. How you think you’re perceived by others can influence how you feel about yourself, whether or not those perceptions are correct. This is why ongoing, problematic emotional eating can be linked to a person’s self-esteem.
Food might be used to suppress or divert oneself from uncomfortable emotions, or from what’s really going on- eating can help us to take our mind off what’s happening in a particular moment. The activity of eating can help to temporarily bury or numb feelings and enable us to avoid confronting what’s going on. Unlike physical hunger, where you might be happy to eat to the point of comfortable fullness or near fullness, with emotional eating you might eat to the point of feeling uncomfortably stuffed, causing you to focus on how physically uncomfortable you’re feeling rather than how mentally uncomfortable you’re feeling. Alternatively, you might have a compulsion to nibble on food throughout the day or ‘graze’- grazing on food is still a form of emotional eating that might help a person to temporarily distract themselves from something else going on.
If, as a child, you were not encouraged to express or acknowledge feelings, you might have learned to cover them up with food. Often, patterns of behaviour learned in childhood stay with us into adulthood- however, we can tackle and address them as long as we’re aware of them.
Some people might use food as a way of telling themselves off for the way they are, or the way they perceive themselves to be, for example, useless, worthless, unlovable, inadequate, ugly, fat. You might fill up on food as a way of punishing yourself for the way you are. Punishing ourselves does nothing to get to the root of the problem, and in fact can lead us into a vicious cycle that’s very hard to break. This is why it’s important to encourage a person who is an emotional eater to start building a more positive self-perception incorporating self-care, self-compassion and self-love.
Some people instantly turn to food the moment they’re upset. Sometimes we might be re-creating previous experiences, where food benefitted us in some way. Perhaps your parents gave you food when you fell over or when you were ill, and perhaps now as an adult you still associate negative or challenging experiences with food, whereby food acts to soothe or reward.
Positive childhood experiences can also link to emotional eating. For example, the nostalgia of eating certain foods as an adult which you ate as a child with a parent who is no longer with you, or eating foods to cherish the memories you have of eating those foods at enjoyable past family gatherings; or you might have been rewarded with food for good behaviour, and so reward yourself now- in this case we’re then attaching a sense of deservedness to food. This might involve rewarding yourself with food if you’ve had a hard day at the office or a hard day looking after the kids, or ordering a takeaway every Friday night because it’s the end of the working week.
Emotional Hunger Versus Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger (a psychological craving) tends to come on suddenly- it demands instant gratification, with a craving for a specific food such as chocolate, cake or pizza. Physical hunger, as a result of an empty stomach or low blood sugar levels, is a more gradual process; there might be less urgency to respond to it and it might involve a desire to eat but not necessarily a specific food. With emotional hunger we might crave fatty or sugary foods or certain textures. With emotional eating it’s often mindless- you might be unaware of how much or even why you’re eating, you might not even be enjoying it because you’re eating it quickly or not paying attention to the taste. With physical hunger we’re more likely to know when we’re full and stop eating accordingly, but with emotional hunger the urge to eat large amounts of food might be so strong that we choose to ignore any fullness signals, or we might have even lost touch with the feeling of fullness until it’s too late and we feel overly stuffed and extremely uncomfortable. You can read more about a person’s relationship with food HERE.
Tackling emotional eating is possible. It’s about going on a journey of self-exploration, not being fearful of looking within, as well as changing how you might view yourself, others and the world. Addressing any misconceptions or crooked thinking, and reframing how we think about or respond to things can help us to manage our feelings which in turn can help us to manage our eating behaviours.
If you feel you could benefit from my Mindful Eating service, give me a call (Emma Randall) on 07961 423120, or email me: email@example.com. I’m based in Lightwater, Surrey. I also offer Skype sessions.
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