Do you stuff your feelings down with food? When you get stressed, frustrated, lonely, angry or depressed do you find yourself eating, rather than dealing with the circumstances that are causing these emotions? Ending overeating is absolutely possible, but before we get started…
Please, don’t beat yourself up! You’re certainly not alone. Not only are millions of people doing the same thing, but I’ve been there too.
Overeating is a Learned Behavior
We don’t start out in life eating for emotional reasons. It’s actually something we learn. At an early age, many of us learned that we couldn’t trust our bodies to tell us when to eat. We heard things like, “You can’t be hungry, it’s not dinner time!”
Emotional eating is often taught by our parents or other authority figures. What happened when you fell down and hurt yourself? Did you get a cookie, “to make it better”? This may have taught us to associate love with food.
In our society, we associate holidays, birthdays, and almost any event with food. We eat for almost any reason – stress, anger, sadness, boredom, happiness, excitement, just about anything but physical hunger.
Do you ever crave “comfort food”? We all do at times. However, if you have this craving frequently or it happens often when you’re experiencing a negative emotion, it may be time to pay attention. Food cravings or urges to eat, especially when you aren’t physically hungry could be a sign of trying to avoid painful or uncomfortable feelings.
This is How You’ve Been Taking Care of Yourself
You may not even realize this is what you’re doing. Just like associating food with love or learning you can’t trust your body to tell you when it’s hungry, you may have learned to “stuff down” negative feelings or to “numb out” when emotions are running high.
Sometimes food is used as a distraction, which is similar to stuffing down or numbing out but often has a different motive. It’s not a conscious decision, but when we overeat so much that we feel sick, it creates a distraction from whatever difficult situation or feeling that triggered us to eat. Instead of dealing with the root cause or emotion, we now have a reason to beat ourselves up, start a diet and turn ourselves into a “project” that needs to be “fixed.”
If you can relate to this, again, don’t beat yourself up. You learned to take care of yourself with food.
Does that sound ridiculous? It’s true. Without proper instruction or modeling by parents on how to effectively deal with emotions, we found a coping strategy. I encourage you to see this situation with gratitude that it was food. You could have learned to use drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, or any other destructive habit that creates much worse outcomes.
There is a Way Out
There is good and bad news about ending overeating. First, the bad news – you will have to feel your feelings. The good news is as you truly allow yourself to feel your feelings, they will lower in intensity and so will the desire for comfort food.
There’s a good chance you won’t know what you are feeling in the beginning. This is because eating has become your learned response to any intense feeling. Stay aware and notice when a craving hits or you’re triggered to eat. If you aren’t physically hungry, ask what you’re feeling.
This isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t want to face the truth of the issue. Run through a list of emotions – anxious, lonely, bored, tired, angry, hurt, embarrassed? If you can’t identify the feeling, that’s ok. Keep trying and practicing as feelings come up. Journaling thoughts and feelings is a helpful practice for identifying emotions and simply feeling better in general.
If you can determine the emotion, ask yourself, “Am I going to die if I sit with this feeling for five minutes?” (If you get a ‘yes’ then start at 30 seconds, it really doesn’t matter how long, it’s about taking action.) Just sit and feel. It may not feel very good at first, but notice how it gets less intense as you allow yourself to feel it. As you practice this more and more, you’ll find it easier to deal with emotions and find yourself less drawn to food to solve your problems.
Feelings Serve a Purpose
Emotions are messengers – whether positive or negative – they let us know that something is going on. There’s something that we need to pay attention to. But when we eat to temporarily shut down the negative feelings, an unintended consequence shows up. It turns out that we can’t turn off emotions or feelings one by one. When we shut down sadness, we also shut down the ability to feel happy, or any other emotion.
This leads to feeling numb, which is uncomfortable, and we stay stuck in this negative cycle. We go back to our coping mechanism, overeating, in an attempt to feel anything at this point. Then guilt and shame show up for having eaten certain foods or too much food, and the cycle continues, on and on.
Spending a short time feeling unwanted emotions is a better option than staying stuck in a diet-binge cycle. Being stuck not only feels bad but with time it can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. It can even drive someone who has never dieted into a dieting cycle, paired with binging, all due to trying to avoid feelings.
If you notice you’re reaching for food when negative feelings come up, become aware, and at the very least, give yourself a few minutes to sit with the feelings. If you’re already stuck in an emotional overeating or binging cycle, or the dieting/binge cycle, and you want out, honoring and feeling your emotions is a good place to begin.