When Eating is Solace: 7 Techniques to Heal Your Emotional Eating
Eating is embedded in your identity as a member of your community, family, and society. But, when does it become a solace for your emotions and distress, instead of a source of celebration and fuel?
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Not all hunger is created equal. Pause to check in with your body’s sensations and look at the indicators below:
What Causes Emotional Eating
- Attempting to sooth unpleasant feelings/emotions
Think back to when you were a kid. You came home from school with a boo boo or bad day, and your parent consoled you with a delicious ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles on top. When unpleasant emotions are solved with food, you learn early on that the way to sooth unpleasant emotions with eating.
If you had a lot of alone time growing up, whether that be because your family or friends were busy, absent, or elsewhere, food was a comfort. This habit translated to your adult experience. 3 pm rolls around in the office and you’ve been staring at that computer for around 7 hours now. It’s possible you haven’t talked to anyone all day. You grab a snack (or two, or three) to pass the day until it’s time to go home.
Do you have a sense of urgency around thinking about your next meal? Are you anxious to eat dessert, even though you’re full? You can’t stop thinking about it even though you’re not hungry? Eating helps calm anxiety, but only for a very short period of time.
When fatigue sets in, your decision-making process is greatly inhibited. If you have a job that involves a lot of problem-solving or emotional work, you are probably cognitively exhausted by the end of the day. That’s why you tend to reach for those afternoon snacks or sweets.
5. To increase/maintain good feelings
Emotional eating isn’t always a response to your negative feelings or emotions. You may eat to increase or sustain positive feelings too. You most likely have a lot of positive experiences tied to meal times with family/friends. You might try to recreate those feel-good experiences with eating. But, eating alone will not replicate those feelings that come from a connection.
Triggers and Overconsumption
Having a snack or two is not inherently “unhealthy.” It becomes unhealthy when that habit starts to feel out of your control. If you feel triggered you may:
- Overeat (sometimes binge eat)
- Skip eating (as a means to regain control)
- Eat processed and sugary foods
- Over consume recreational drugs
These habits leave you more upset, hungry, aggravated than when you started. When you eat processed foods, you experience blood sugar spikes, brain fog, fatigue, and hunger. Due to the caloric surplus and low nutritional value of junk foods, you’ll likely become hungry an hour later and crave more. Sometimes the consumption you turn to for comfort, isn’t comforting at all.
Your Brain on Junk Food
When you encounter a perceived threat — such as a large dog barking on your morning walk, — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Your fight or flight response shuts down your normal body functions that control mood, motivation, and fear. Over time, your fight or flight response can’t be turned off high blast and it causes serious physical and mental health issues.
⬇️ motivation & mood➡ ➡ ⬇️ willpower = ⬆️overconsumption
Junk food is high in fat and sugar. It’s addictive and comes in small portion sizes with many servings. Large quantities of junk food releases more serotonin (a hormone and neurotransmitter that regulates mood and “good feels”) and dopamine (a hormone and neurotransmitter that releases feelings of reward and pleasure), but the feelings are short-lived. The root of your stress hasn’t been solved.
Techniques for Self Care
The good news is, there are other techniques to release serotonin and dopamine that will contribute to your well-being and health!
Seems simple, but it’s harder than it sounds! Meditate, practice deep breathing to calm your system down, eat slowly and thoughtfully, avoid eating when totally famished.
2. Positive and Compassionate Self Talk
A lot of times what you need when you turn to food is someone to help you feel better with some kind words and encouragement. What would you say to your best friend if they were in distress? Now tell yourself that very same thing.
3. Self Soothing Touch and Massage
You may respond best to physical touch in times of distress. Hugs from your friends or partners are not available on demand 24/7(unfortunately). Placing a hand on your heart or stomach, providing a self-massage to the temples, or pressing certain acupressure points, can provide instant comfort.
4. Building Emotional Resilience
Pushing away your feelings avoids the real root of your stress. They will come up again. If you face them and process them in a safe and healthy way, they can be released. It’s important to enlist a trusted person, therapist or professional in this process, especially if you’re dealing with trauma-related stress.
5. Create Tool Box of Activities to Release Feel Good Chemicals
What does that list look like for you? Create it now. Here’s a few to start: yoga, take a bath, call a friend, read a book, take a walk, feel your bare feet on the ground, exercise, etc. Refer to the list and do one activity when you feel the pull to eat out of solace.
You’ve probably heard this one before, but exercise is incredibility powerful for stress and emotion regulation. Low-Intensity State Cardio (walking, biking, swimming at a relaxed level) reduces stress levels considerably. Dancing and short bursts of intense exercise can help dissipate adrenaline from flooding your nervous system. Run up and down the stairs in your office or apartment a few times. Do some mountain climbers and planks. Something difficult enough to make you shake and feel out of breath for a few minutes. You will feel silly, but it will help you IMMENSELY.
7. Change your environment
If you’re feeling triggered, bored, unproductive, or lonely, physically remove yourself from the place or situation. Switch rooms, go outside, take a walk around the block, grab a tea. Return once you’ve returned to base level.
Become aware and go try these techniques. You are in full control!