What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating, which is also known as binge eating, corresponds to the tendency of overeating when not physically hungry in response to emotions such as sadness, stress, anxiety or boredom. According to the DSM- 5, binge eating disorder is associated with three or more of the following characteristics:
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating alone out of embarrassment over amount eaten’
- Feeling disgusted, depressed, ashamed or guilty after overeating
The triggers of emotional eating are often times subjective, sometimes even difficult to identify. It may involve the receipt of negative feedback, a breakup, or an upcoming event. No matter the trigger, many of us can relate to the temporary relief that is felt from gravitating mindlessly to the comfort food of our choice.
What are the problems associated with Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is one of various behaviors that, in the context of experiential avoidance, functions to help us cope with emotions. I can remember times of high stress in my life when I had suddenly found myself rummaging through my kitchen in search of comfort food, even after assessing that I was not physically hungry.
By trying to escape from our feelings our minds are saying, “Danger, it’s bad to not feel ok.” This message fuels the behavior that we use to push uncomfortable feelings away triggering emotional and psychological consequences such as obesity, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and type 2 diabetes.
What should I do if I have a problem with Emotional Eating?
One of the goals often set in therapy, is learning the skills to manage uncomfortable emotions or situations instead of acting on emotionally driven behaviors. When dealing with emotional eating, it is at times possible to identify a cycle or feedback loop that reinforces the behavior due to the short term relief felt by avoidance or distraction from an emotion.
By managing emotions one can better control emotional eating which would help someone move toward their personal health and nutritional values.
7 Techniques for Managing emotional Eating
While many have had the experience of emotional eating, some may not be equipped to identify and understand the severity and frequency of occurrences. Below I’ve included some resources that can improve your ability to manage emotional eating:
- Emotion vs Physical Hunger:
I often recommend for clients to consult with a nutritionist in order to assess their nutritional habits and needs. In a culture where it is common practice to diet, it is important to be aware of possible deficits in our nutrition. Below is a diagram that may be helpful to differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
|*Urge comes on suddenly and feels urgent||*Hunger develops gradually|
|*Cravings for specific comfort foods||*Most foods perceived as satisfying|
|*Hunger is usually not satisfied until you feel uncomfortable||*Satisfied when physically full|
- Non-judgmental Emotional awareness:
For many people acceptance is a different approach on emotions. When we categorize emotions as bad, or as a threat we are assigning judgment to them and this will most likely lead to wanting to push them away. The objective is to view emotions as serving a function, to learn to accept them rather than battle them. Emotions are not good or bad. They are normal, natural, and adaptive and provide us with important information about different types of experiences.
Identifying and managing the driving emotion(s) that lead to emotional eating assist us with better managing symptoms. Instead of using food to manage emotions, clients learn to experience emotions. The basic components of emotional awareness emphasis on the following:
- Letting oneself fully experience emotions as they happen.
- Focus on the present moment
- Noticing thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are happening in the moment
- Not judging or trying to stop emotions, but allowing them to come and go.
- Being aware and acceptance that emotions don’t always feel good.
One of the visualizations that I use in sessions to illustrate emotional awareness is called “Leaves on a Stream’. It assists clients to become aware of thoughts and emotions and to view emotions and urges as temporary states.
- Identify your triggers:
It is helpful to better understand and identify situations or events that may trigger emotions and that usually precede emotional eating. One of the techniques used to become more aware of patterns is journaling and including the situation/trigger, thought/ emotion, reaction/behavior and outcome.
I frequently use this acronym from The Weight Escape, Ciarrochi, Bailey and Harris, 2013. It gives space for recognition of control we have on our choices. While emotional eating, clients frequently report feeling “out of control” or feeling like they are in a trance or zoned out. In therapy we work to apply STOP out of session to increase awareness and value oriented behaviors.
S-Slow down- Slowly breathe; press your feet down; or slowly stretch
T– Take note- Notice what you are feeling and thinking; notice the world around you and what you are doing.
O-Open up-Make space for your thoughts and feelings; allow them to flow through you
P-Pursue values-find a way to act on them.
- Identify and anticipate obstacles:
In many cases, we have often put effort into trying to manage the problem in many ways in the past. It is often helpful to recognize what has historically gotten in the way of changing the habit. Accounting for obstacles provides us with the opportunity to plan on how you might want to respond to change to these barriers.
Obstacles may also include thoughts that we have when trying to change a habit. You may become aware of some of your personal ones such as “not today”, “I’m not ready” “ I had a tough day, I deserve this”, “I can’t deal with this right now” “I’ll start tomorrow”. The mind has a way of coming up with a myriad of reasons and excuses (many times valid) as to why now is not a good time to modify an unwanted habit, being aware of this, and “calling out” unhelpful thoughts gives space to recognize them and the control we have on our behaviors to act in a consistent way with all goals and values despite what our thoughts are. Change can take place even if we don’t feel or think that we are 100% ready for it.
- Act on coping alternatives:
When stopping a behavior it is often helpful to replace it with a new one. I often ask my clients what they would they like to do instead of x, which is consistent with their goals and values. Choosing a coping strategy can be very personal. Take some time to come up with a list of activities that you value. For some it can be enlisting support such as a therapist, friend or family member when they feel the urge to emotionally eat, for others it can be taking a walk, listening to music, deep breathing or stretching.
Getting rid of a behavior that functioned by managing unconfutable feelings is not easy to do. Treat yourself gently thought the process. Remind yourself that you are human and that change is a process. Acknowledge frustrations, and discomfort that comes with changes. Remind yourself about caring activities that you would like to engage in.
Perhaps most of us have learned to adaptively try to “escape” from emotions or situations that we find unpleasant, but this avoidance can become a chronic and serious problem. When we make it a habit to consistently escape our emotions we prevent ourselves from fully experiencing and processing events as non-threatening. My hope is that you will find this information valuable and usable in your efforts to manage emotion eating. Please contact me if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.