How to Deal with Emotional Eating

I want to start out by saying that emotional eating is not the enemy.  Yes, it can feel like the enemy when you find yourself wrist deep in the ice cream carton because it feels like the only thing that makes you feel better.  But all of us eat emotionally at times. We are emotional beings. It’s okay. It’s normal.

Now, if you find that emotional eating is the only way you deal with your feelings, then it can become something to look at more deeply.  But still, the emotional eating is not the actual problem, but a symptom. It’s pointing out that there are some powerful emotions wanting to be addressed. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

I could just give you a list here of things you can do besides eating to distract yourself from your emotions, like this handout. But these are like temporary band-aids that can work for a while, but don’t address the underlying issue – the emotions.  It’s certainly not wrong to use alternative strategies like those listed in the handout. They can be great strategies as long as they work for you.  

How do you know they’re not working?  When your unwanted symptoms keep returning, getting stronger, and interfering with your day to day life.  These symptoms could be binge eating, often eating when you’re not hungry to keep from dealing with emotions, or even restricting food and denying your hunger.

If you find that you’re constantly distracting yourself from your emotions, know that you’re not alone.  Our culture teaches us to hide our less positive emotions and we’re often encouraged to ignore them and pretend they aren’t really there.  Just look at a well-meaning parent trying to comfort a young child. They might tell them not to cry, that it’s not so bad, and perhaps even give them a cookie or candy to help them feel better.  Can you see how we learn early on to hide and deny our feelings, and if that fails, just eat to soothe the pain?

It’s not parents’ fault either that this gets taught to us.  They are only doing what they were taught. So what to do with these socially unacceptable emotions?  Here is a step-by-step process to help you learn to befriend these emotions, rather than bury them with food or suppress them with lack of food. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

Identify the Emotion

To know what you’re dealing with, you first must name the emotion/s you’re feeling.  Be as specific as possible. You might want to close your eyes and sit in a place without distractions to help you connect to these emotions.  You can use a list like this to help you decide what you’re feeling.  This might be difficult if you’ve been ignoring your emotions for a while, but it will get easier with practice.  

Identify the Thought

Emotions come from our underlying thoughts and beliefs.  Now that you know the emotion, what thoughts were you thinking that led to that emotion?  For instance, if you feel worthless and insecure, you might have had a thought before that like, I can’t do anything right.  

Again, this might take some practice if you’re not used to noticing what’s going on in your mind, but it’s crucial to help you get out of this damaging cycle.  This will also get better with practice.

Identify the Trigger

While it can seem our thoughts come from nowhere, and sometimes they can, there’s usually something that triggers the thought.  Try to identify where the thought came from, in our example, I can’t do anything right.  Maybe you got a call from your mother just before.  What was it about that call that triggered your thought?  Maybe you realize she was criticizing your choices, which triggered your thought, I can’t do anything right.  

Sometimes a thought can be triggered by another thought.  Maybe you had a memory of a time you felt criticized, and that triggered the thought.  If that’s the case, use that memory as the trigger.

Challenge the Thought

Now you’re aware of what you’re feeling, the thought that caused that feeling, and the event that caused the thought. I’ll let you in on a little secret here: you don’t have to believe your thoughts! ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

You don’t have to believe your thoughts.  What would it mean if you knew that to be true?  What could change if you realized that most of your thoughts are not true, they’re simply byproducts of an active mind at work that sometimes produces waste.  Waste thoughts are thoughts such as I can’t do anything right.

Let’s prove it.  Looking at reality, name all the things you know you do right, or have done right in the past.  If you had another thought triggering a different emotion, challenge that thought as well by listing evidence against it.  You can clearly see that not all your thoughts are accurate.

Choose a Helpful Thought

Now that you know the old thought wasn’t true, what would be a more helpful thought in this situation?  In our example, instead of I can’t do anything right, maybe it’s more curious in nature, like is there something about this choice I made that I need to re-examine?  Or is there something about my choices that triggers my mother’s own emotions in some way?  

These thoughts are much more constructive because it gives you the power back.  You can calmly examine your choices to see if they really do work for you, or you can see where your mother’s criticism might actually be coming from.  There’s no self-attack and no untrue waste thoughts. Just areas to explore. And you can choose to focus on these thoughts, and let the unhelpful and untrue thoughts go.

Know Your Triggers

Once you know some of the events or memories that trigger your thoughts, you can be more aware of what your thoughts are that then lead to your emotions.  In our example, knowing a call from your mother might trigger these self-attack thoughts can help you prepare yourself the next time you talk with her. You might remind yourself of all the great choices you’ve made, or try to understand her point of view.  

When the call finishes, be extra aware of your thoughts and emotions.  You might notice your emotions before your thoughts when you’re new at this, so just backtrack to find the thought that triggered it.

Know When to Get Help

Some emotions or thoughts might require more help than you can do on your own.  In these cases, consider seeing a licensed therapist who can help you sort them out.  If you have severe depression or other mental health challenge, you may want to ask your therapist before trying the strategies above.  

The True Cause of Emotional Eating

I hope you can see from how we handled your emotions and thoughts above, that emotional eating is not the issue.  The real issue is not knowing how to deal with the uncomfortable emotions. Food becomes the soother, the numbing agent or distraction that keeps you from feeling and dealing with them.  It’s understandable.

And remember – everyone eats emotionally at times, and it’s totally normal.  And if you want to do so less frequently, try the strategies listed here, and let me know in the comments how they worked for you!

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