Are you stuffing 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?
Please, don’t beat yourself up if you are doing this. You’re certainly not alone. Not only are millions of people doing the same thing, but I’ve been there too.
Emotional Eating 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 body to tell us when to eat. We heard things like, “You can’t be hungry, it’s not dinner time!” Emotional eating is usually 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 taught us to associate love with food.
In our society, we also 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”? This is usually a sign that you’re experiencing some kind of intense emotion. You may not even realize this if you often engage in emotional overeating. We get an urge to eat when a negative emotion comes up because we’ve learned it allows us to “stuff down” those feelings and “numb out” temporarily from the feeling.
Food is a distraction and when you overeat so much that you feel sick, this creates an even bigger distraction. If you can relate to this, again, don’t beat yourself up. Like me, this is how you learned to take care of yourself, it’s a protective measure, a coping strategy. You could have learned to use drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, or any other destructive habit instead of using food.
There is a Way Out
There is good and bad news. 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.
Of course there is a good chance you won’t know what you are feeling. This is because eating is usually the response to any intense feeling. So first, you need to be aware of when you are going for food. If you find you really aren’t physically hungry, ask yourself 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 very helpful for some people to identify what emotion is going on.
If you can determine the feeling, 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.) All you have to do is 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 will find it easier to deal with emotions and find yourself less drawn to food to solve your problems.
Feelings Serve a Purpose
Whether positive or negative, feelings 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 usually has us starting the cycle all over again. We go back to our coping mechanism, overeating, in an attempt to feel anything at this point. Often the new feelings that come up are guilt and shame, for having eaten certain foods or too much food, and the cycle continues, on and on.
Hopefully you can see that spending a short amount of time feeling emotions you may not really want to feel is a much better option than staying stuck in emotional eating cycle that not only doesn’t feel good, but could lead to weight gain, negative self-talk and for some, an escalation into binge eating. It can even drive someone who has never dieted into a dieting cycle, paired with binging, all due to trying to avoid feelings.
The main point is if you’re noticing that you are 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, feeling your feelings is also a good place to begin.
If you’d like to understand your challenges better, and what you can do to break free of them, please feel free to email me at Gillian@HealthierOutcomes.com, or complete the survey at www.TalkWithGillian.com and we can set up a no-charge Make Peace With Food Strategy Session! I’ve been through and recovered from binge eating disorder, emotional eating and chronic dieting, and want to help you do the same!