We all have emotions and at times get emotional. Of course we do, we are human. On any day, events can happen that have us feeling on a high or we can come crashing down and feel very low. To be able to manage these emotions every day, we need to learn emotional regulation. This is the ability to manage our emotions. The problem is, not many of us were taught how to do that when we were younger. Therefore we learn to manage our difficult feelings by using food. So is it possible to learn how to manage our emotions without food? Absolutely, we can. I’m going to take you through the steps of how you can.
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What causes emotional eating?
There are many reasons why we emotionally eat. It usually starts slowly over a period of time and we may not even be aware that we are using food for comfort or to manage our difficult emotions. In my experience, these are some of the reasons why people tend to eat emotionally.
1. Childhood Conditioning
Our parents or caregivers may have had a difficult relationship with food. You may have seen them constantly being on diets, or telling themselves how fat they were. You may have been fed a diet of junk food with little to no healthy eating guidance. This led to you growing up to believe that this is how you eat and you implicitly learn to have a difficult relationship with food and yourself around food. These behaviors from childhood stick around throughout your adult life, until you learn to reprogramme yourself with food.
2. Childhood/Adult abuse
We may have suffered abuse in our childhood, ranging from emotional, physical, sexual, financial abuse, and, or neglect. This is going to have a detrimental effect on us growing up. Instead of our brain being able to focus our growth on forming relationships, learning skills at school, and developing our brains. Our brain goes into survival mode. Our brain chemistry develops so that we learn to develop behaviours to cope with the stress and situation around us. To do that we form coping mechanisms. Maladaptive ways of coping with strong emotions, that we are not equipped to deal with as a child. One of those ways could be discovering we have access to the snack cupboard and the box of cookies makes us feel good. We have started to build associations between food and feeling good.
3. Traumatic event
A traumatic event or a series of minor traumatic events can cause us to cope by using food. This could be described as bullying at school, the death of a loved one, and or an accident for instance. We may have such intense emotions that we do not know how to process them or even make sense of them. The said event could cause us to experience mild depression. The negative feelings around these events could be too much to deal with so we can end up emotionally eating as a coping mechanism.
4. Life/work balance
Many of us have busy and stressful jobs. Some of us may thrive in that environment, however some of us may be in that environment and it can start taking over our lives. There is pressure on us to be there early in the morning till late at night. Pressure on us to perform well. We can start to feel imposter syndrome, where we believe we are not good enough and have to prove ourselves in some way, which adds on more pressure to us. This leads us to leading an imbalanced life where our focus and time is on work. This leaves no time for us. This imbalance leaves us feeling emotionally depleted and mentally depleted. Something has to give, and what usually gives is us emotionally eating.
Is emotional eating an eating disorder?
Emotional Eating is not an eating disorder. Eating disorders include Binge Eating disorder. An eating disorder can feel totally out of your control. It is an extreme way of eating.
Binge Eating for instance, involves eating large amounts of food in a very short space of time and is usually followed by feelings of guilt and or shame.
Disordered eating is where your eating is not following any regular pattern. Some days you may binge, others eating bits and pieces. It is not driven by hunger but hunger may come into it.
Compulsive eating is where you feel a compulsive urge to eat and will more likely be binge eating. It can feel like you have no control over the amount of what you eat.
Whereas emotional eating is an unconscious pattern that involves using food to manage your emotional state. It may not be extreme. You may not binge or restrict your eating. Because it is not extreme, therefore it will not require interventions like a hospital stay. Emotional eating may be frustrating, but it may not be as intrusive in your thoughts and life as binge eating may be.
As we develop coping mechanisms, because we do not have not yet learned to use the resources inside of us to cope with uncomfortable feelings, our brain drives us to reach ourside of ourseves to emotioanlly regulate. People do use alcohol, drugs or other substances to deal with our negative emotions. However a lot of people will develop their emotional eatiing patterns from childhood. Food is one source that is readily available. Our food choices in that moment usually mean we choose sugary foods. This gives us an instant hit of dopamine and it feels good. We are not normally judged in the same way as an alcoholic or a drug user would be. In a moment of uncomfortable feelings and heightened emotions, we won’t be making logical decisions. It will be as simple as we see the pint of ice cream in the freezer, it tastes good and you know it will make me feel better.
How to stop emotional eating
There are different ways to go about stopping your emotional eating. This is a deep dive into yourself and a journey of evolution
Any change starts with awareness. Also known as mindful eating and intuitive eating. Mindful eating is being aware of what you eat, how much you eat and what triggers you to eat. It is being curious with yourself, letting go of judgement and just noticing your eating patterns.
The brilliant book, Intuitive eating; A revolutionary programme that works by Evelyn Tribole, talks you through how to practice mindful eating amoung other practises to help you become at peace with food.
Being mindful also involves being introspective and asking yourself questions such as:
Do I eat when I am hungry? Do I eat when I am not hungry?
What am I feeling when I eat?
What does eating do for me? (besides satisfying your hunger)
Journalling in this context is not about writing everything in your day, nor is it necessarily keeping a food log, although that can be helpful. Keeping a log of your emotions, your emotional triggers and your eating patterns can help you to see what is going on for you. It can help you to see what foods or is food being used as a response to emotions.
3. Accept your emotions
Many of us may have been taught that negative emotions are wrong. We are wrong for feeling angry or upset. Our emotions are natural mental reactions that we experience as feelings. The unconscious creates these feelings based on our perceptions and experiences of past events. There is nothing wrong or right about emotions, they are a part of us. An inner guidance system for us. Developing a peaceful relationship with food and ourselves is being able to accept our emotions, all of them. Accepting that when we feel anger, sadness it is ok.
Building a meditation practise helps us to build this inner sense of calm. It helps us to open the door of the unconscious and bring what we do not know about into conscious awareness. It builds a mind body connection which may not be there at present.
The mind body connection can help us to starty identifying cues such as hunger levels and fullness cues. We are then able to respond better to these, rather than eating unconsciously. By being calmer within us, having a sense of peace, means we are able to handle our emotions better and therefore less likely to turn to food to help us cope with any painful feelings,
5. Build positive emotional health habits
Stopping emotional eating is a progressive journey. It is being aware of why we may overeat, but it also involves building a self-care toolbox to help us with managing our emotions every day.
Exercises such as meditation, deep breathing exercises can help us to feel calm. Keeping active such as walking and moving in ways that are fun for you, this could even be creating a dance routine around doing household chores. Having a calming bedtime routine, where you are switching off the phones helps you to sleep better.