Recognizing Emotional Eating
It’s midnight. You have a paper due first thing in the morning and your page is… still blank.
You look across the room and notice a large bag of chips that seem like the perfect antidote to your writer’s block.
You just got home from a long day at work and your partner sits you down to have “the talk.” They think it’s best you go your separate ways. Cue: A waterfall of tears and a night spent with your reliable friends, Ben & Jerry.
If either of the scenarios above sound familiar to you – you’re not alone. Everyone. EVERYONE has used food to cope with their emotions via emotional eating. Turning to food in times of stress or heartbreak is not inherently unhealthy. What is unhealthy is getting into a habit… any habit… without awareness of our behavior.
More often than not you’ve turned to food unconsciously. This is what constitutes emotional eating and what’s generally regarded as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Emotional eating uses food as a way to cope with, numb, or escape from our emotions. Depending on your upbringing, emotions and big feelings might not have been allowed. And if they were allowed, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to cope with them.
As adults, feeling our feelings is one of the hardest, most brave, and vulnerable things we do. And because many of us were not taught how, we resort to what comes easiest or what was modeled for us… eating.
Believe it or not, there are ways that food can be a wonderful coping strategy.
- Sipping on a warm beverage to soothe your nervous system.
- Using food as a sensory experience: While eating, pay attention to each bite – notice the texture & flavor – to help you return to the present moment.
- If your spirits are low and you have a favorite food, eat it and enjoy it!! In the break-up scenario above, if you are feeling really sad and low… acknowledge this, feel it, and then decide to do something that makes you happy. Perhaps taking a bath, eating ice cream, and watching your favorite movie are exactly what you need.
- Eat because you’re genuinely hungry and this hunger is contributing to your irritation, stress, or overwhelm.
There are also times when food isn’t the most effective coping strategy.
- Turning to food unconsciously and automatically as a way to numb out and disassociate from the present moment.
- Mindlessly eating bite after bite as a form of punishment or to inflict pain. This could be to take your attention off of or in response to an emotion.
- Making food an object of your control as a way to compensate for or distract you from an emotion.
The next time you are feeling sad, stressed, anxious, angry, or overwhelmed try this instead:
Take a deep breath.
Notice the sensations in your body.
Notice the thoughts running through your mind.
Try to name and label the emotion you’re experiencing.
Then consciously choose how you want to work with this experience.
- Go for a walk
- Call a friend
- Spend time in nature
- Play music loudly in your room or car
- Go for a drive
- Read an inspirational book
OR if sitting down and enjoying food or a beverage mindfully feels like it would be soothing, comforting, and supportive… then, by all means, enjoy it. Guilt-free. You have the strength to break the cycle of emotional eating!
Chelsea is a Mindfulness-based Food and Body Image Coach in Greenville, SC. She supports women who are seeking to make peace with food and heal their relationship with their body. She hosts an active blog, speaks on topics related to mindfulness, spirituality, food and body image, and LOVES working with her clients via online coaching. To learn more about Chelsea, visit her website www.chelseahester.com
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