By exploring exactly what emotional eating is, how to determine if you’re doing it, and by learning a few ways that you can begin coping with your emotions in a different way, you can move towards breaking the bonds you have with your emotional eating habit and start to develop a balanced relationship with food.
We all experience emotional eating at some point in our lives – it is natural. We are human! After all, we are emotional creatures.
But as emotional creatures, we are also creatures of habit, and the occasional emotional eating episode can quickly turn into a sole coping mechanism for many.
When this pattern starts to unfold and is left unaddressed, it can cause us stress, guilt, anxiety and worst of all, shame. It begins to lead us on a pathway towards an unhealthy relationship with food that can affect our mental, physical, and spiritual health.
So what is emotional eating, how do we know when it is an issue, how to you determine if you're doing it and how can you start to respond to our emotions in a different way?
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL EATING?
Emotional eating is when you are emotions begin to guide and determine you're habits and behaviours around food – for example, how much you eat, when you eat, and what you eat.
Key emotions that may trigger you include, boredom, stress, grief, depression, loneliness, anxiety, and guilt and shame, however emotional eating can also occur when you feel an emotion that tend to be linked to more ‘positive’ emotions such as excitement and love.
The occasional use of food to soothe us is completely normal – as children our mothers soothed us with food, or we were soothed by the dentist or doctor or teacher with a snack or too. It is just how we have been brought up.
IS YOU'RE EMOTIONAL EATING AN ISSUE?
Emotional Eating only becomes an issue when:
It is accompanied by a feeling of loss of control around food whilst in an emotional state
You start to check out when you eat and become detached from the body whilst in an emotional state
You don’t have any other coping mechanisms to help you emotional regulate
You feel like you don’t have any choice other than to emotional eat
You're eating feels impulsive or reactive
Food is the first thing you think off in response to emotional triggers – it is your default
Unable to know our limits with food and when to stop
Unaware of fullness cues and regularly feel uncomfortable
The real important takeaway here, is your awareness and choice and how embodied you are whilst going through the process.
Examples of typical non problematic emotional eating might look like VS when it might become an issue):
Ordering a takeaway and having a glass of wine after a difficult day vs. you have takeaways and drink every night because you're constantly overwhelmed
You have a favourite sugary snack when feeling stressed vs. you have these multiple times a day, or every day
ARE YOU EMOTIONALLY EATING?
The best way to determine this is the following short exercise in asking yourself the following questions:
Do you find comfort in food when you feel emotional?
How often do you eat until you’re stuffed or uncomfortable when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed?
Do you have difficulty understanding you're hunger cues?
Do you turn to food to reward yourself?
Do you ever feel out of control around food?
It is important to remember that whilst food can temporarily soothe, distract or give you some time and space, in some situations, in the long term, it cannot help you process repetitive and overwhelming or difficult emotions which is why it is important to create a emotional regulation self-care took kit so that we can deal with our emotions in a more effective way.
In this body of work, we work towards detaching the labels of emotions of being negative and positive and instead try to see emotions as neutral and simply energy in motion. When we label them as positive or negative, we attach a story to them and it means we detach from ourselves and our body, because we are often told that feeling some emotions are better than others.
HOW CAN YOU RESPOND DIFFERENTLY TO YOUR EMOTIONS?
Our ability to emotionally self-regulate can be dependent on many factors. Some of us may have been taught this from our caregivers, or at school, however many of us have been taught not to feel, or that emotions are weak.
Our emotions are closely connected to how we think, feel and then behave. They determine how we respond to situations and what actions to take.
The first step is to be able to recognise emotions and be able to name them. Some of us may have not ever developed the language to name what emotion we are feeling.
Emotions also cause sensations in the body; these sensations may feel uncomfortable. Sensations are usually what causes us to disconnect from the body because if we don’t have the language or ability to understand the emotion, it can become unnerving.
Turning to food as a coping mechanism is a sign of emotional dysregulation – when we feel uncomfortable, or emotional and turn to food to regulate ourselves.
Examples of emotional regulation techniques in the moment may include:
Journaling each time, the craving comes up or when you would usually reach for food
Doing a short 3–5-minute breath practice
Putting on a song and dancing
Shaking the body and doing a flicking motion from the hands and feet
Drink a glass of water or make a tea
Getting outside to connect with nature
Light a candle and focus on the flame
Setting a time of 10 minutes and notice what’s coming up in those moments, trying to track sensations in the body and noticing any layers and textures of what is arising
It is important to note that these are habits to use in the moments, and won’t address the issue, but the real key is the integration of self-care tools on a day-to-day basis that form part of a new routine that will help you to strengthen your emotional regulation ability.
These might include:
Mindful movement practice – dancing, qigong, yoga, walking
Breathwork and pranayama
Morning pages journaling
Prioritising rest and sleep
Getting help from a coach, or therapist
More practices can be discussed on a 1-2-1 basis to help you to determine what practices might be most supportive for you.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR EMOTIONS
Emotional Check in
It is important to start checking in with yourself regularly so that you can start to differentiate between the emotions you are feeling. This can be very difficult for many as we have become so disassociated from our bodies, and have spent years running away from it, and our emotions that starting to track emotions can be overwhelming. Don't put pressure on yourself if this makes you feel uncomfortable. Simply get curious why its making you feel uncomfortable and perhaps use one of the tools listed above to help discharge anything that comes up.
How to emotionally check in:
Pause for a moment and breathe.
Ask yourself how you feel. – you may want to close your eyes
Notice where in the body you feel something and the qualities and textures of it
You can say the emotion out loud or write them down
If you start to feel overwhelmed you can take, you're focus externally to something in your environment and notice the qualities and textures of that, for example a plant, or an object – noticing colours, shapes
When you feel comfortable again, come back in towards the emotion if you need too. You can go in between these as much as you need
Ask yourself what you need in this moment
Thank yourself for taking the time to come to this practice and notice
If you then want to proceed to eating, feel free and use the next step.
THE MINDFUL EATING STRATEGY
Get to know you're hunger cues
Hunger cues are your body’s way of signalling the need for energy or food. It’s a physical feeling or sensation triggered by a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin notifies your brain when it’s time to increase appetite and seek out food. When we are emotionally eating, we are not listening to these signals
Take some time to reconnect with your body wisdom and get to know your hunger cues. When do you feel the sensation of hunger? How long does it usually take after a meal before you feel hungry again?
I recommend getting to know the Hunger and Fullness Scale which you can check out HERE.
Try to stay present whilst you eat.
Use the check in tool before eating and when you reach the natural pause when eating your meal - get to know more about the natural pause HERE.
Try to avoid eating in front of the TV, or whilst checking out in front of your phone.
Try to note the sensations that arise whilst your eating - don't attach to them, ust notice and allow them to move through and notice if they change as you keep breathing.
Overcoming you're emotional eating takes time as once we have fallen into a routine and formed a habit, it can take a while to break it.
The journey to break this habit is also multi-faceted and requires the consideration and involvement of body-mind and spirit.
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Let me know in the comments how you get on!