“You don’t cure emotional eating by removing all comfort foods. You do it by learning how to comfort yourself”
Turning to food for comfort — either consciously or unconsciously — when stressed, anxious, bored or upset is a long-standing habit that goes back to our very beginnings. Because what were we given when we cried as babies? A bottle of milk or breastfed milk. We know that food hits the pleasure centre of the brain, also known as the reward circuit, which includes all kinds of pleasure, from sex to laughter to certain types of drug use.
The problem with emotional eating is that it can seriously sabotage our weight-loss efforts, causing us to gain weight or even stand still – so disheartening when we really had worked hard that week or month. Not only that, it triggers intense feelings of guilt and defeat which, in turn, can lead us to wanting to throw in the towel when it comes to our weight loss goals.
If we stop and think about it, we’ll tend to notice that these slips usually happen when we’re at our weakest point emotionally, or when we’ve had a particularly hard day. They are very different from ‘treats’, which are often carried out under much more controlled circumstances. An emotional eating slip usually involves a specific food craving, such as those from the sugar/processed carb category [the reality is, if we were truly hungry, a banana would do the trick].
When in the grip of an emotional ‘binge’, it seems to all happens so fast. We are almost not present, as the ‘treat’ food gets hoovered within minutes. In fact, a tell-tale sign of emotional eating is that it’s often carried out standing up at the kitchen counter. Or it may take the form of secret eating, if we don’t want loved ones to comment. It is often carried out at speed, with the feeling that it’s almost out of control. This is ‘mindless eating’ at its worst.
But what many people don’t realise is that it is NOT ‘just automatic’. It is usually the result of a thought or a feeling. In other words, there is a subconscious thought or feeling that precedes the binge. And this emotion gets suppressed or ‘numbed’ by the eating. We are often not consciously aware of your suppression of emotions. This is the first problem. Without being consciously aware, we are led by impulse.
Facing difficult feelings can be hard, but eating yourself fat, or drinking yourself into oblivion, is much, much harder in the longer term.
1) CHECK IN WITH YOUR EMOTIONS:
Have a conversation with yourself. It’s time to start becoming much more aware of yourself by ‘checking in’. It may feel strange at first, but it’s the only way to start unearthing those uncomfortable emotions that you’ve been trying to supress.
Discover firstly what emotion are you actually experiencing? There are so many to choose from…stress, rage, fear, anxiety, rejection, jealousy, shame, sadness or others. Tough emotions are experienced by every individual, just as positive emotions are. We all have different life experiences so the frequency or intensity of those can differ. But eating our way through those emotions doesn’t help. In fact, it only masks the problem and makes it worse.
Emotions can be scary, particularly if we have spent a lifetime running away from, or suppressing them. We don’t like how vulnerable they make us feel. But it’s crucial that we start feeling this discomfort in order to move forwards. In fact, naming the emotion can bring it to the surface and has the effect of de-powering it. So you might say ‘I’m feeling anxious’ or ‘I’m feeling incredibly frustrated’. Give it a go.
Try naming it, and then sit with it a while. Accept and validate your feelings. Give yourself permission to have these emotions. Try not to judge yourself for having this feeling of anxiety, stress, boredom or sadness. It’s a feeling – let it in. Accept it fully. The huge benefit is a deeper connection with yourself, and a reduction in this type of self-sabotaging behaviour.
“The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts ABOUT your circumstances.”
– Andrew Bernstein
2) ENGAGE THE ‘STOP’ BUTTON:
A fantastic achievement for anyone is when they manage to STOP eating the food, or drinking that drink which they KNOW is counter-productive. Start getting back some control by engaging the STOP button.
Stop what you’re doing. Put the food or drink down. Even better, toss it down the sink or into the bin.
Take a few deep breaths. Become aware of breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Notice yourself calming down. Place your hand on your chest to connect with yourself.
Observe what you’re experiencing right now. Become aware of thoughts, emotions and feelings. Thoughts are not facts. They can be distorted. Name the emotion – even say it out loud – so that you get a chance to turn down the volume on the fear circuit in your brain. Notice your body – is it starting to let go of that initial tension?
Proceed with something that will support you in that moment (see list below). Treat this as an experiment, so that you learn how to take back control and to connect with yourself in a real way. Whatever you ate, and regardless of how much, work hard NOT to feel guilty… move forwards with your eating plan as normal. Be curious, rather than guilty – why did I eat that way? What was going on for me? What action could I take next time that would be better?
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”
– Brene Brown
3) DIP INTO THE BRAIN – WHAT IS IT TELLING YOU?
Now that you’ve had a bit of space and time, the next step is to start looking at our distorted thoughts. These are thoughts that have perhaps become a bit too negative, unrealistic or self-critical. Thoughts we believe to be fact, when they are far from it.
What message are you ‘playing’ to yourself with your thoughts – think of it as a CD or a podcast. Is it on a negative loop? Are your thoughts very harsh (to ourselves and/or others)? Are they realistic? Or do we tend to get into black and white/all or nothing thinking? Are you imagining the worst? Are you your own worst critic? Do you give yourself permission to make mistakes?
What is most exciting in this field of study is that psychologists know that we have the power to change our own emotions. We do this by changing the thoughts we are having. The way we can do this is by analysing our thought process prior to the emotion – and working on that to change our thoughts to more positive ones, in the hope of a more positive outcome.
Ask yourself…’what is a more positive, realistic and less critical thought I could have about this?’ ‘How could I show more compassion and kindness (often to myself)?” ‘What would be a more helpful way of looking at this?’ Or ‘What would my friend/partner say to me about this situation’?
This process of challenging your own thoughts takes practice but it CAN be learnt over time. The results can be life-changing. Think of your brain as being a muscle – you can train your muscles to become fit and to adapt to new exercises which become easy and require less effort – the key ingredient is practice.
4) SOOTHE YOURSELF IN OTHER WAYS:
Let it out: If you’re feeling strong emotions, try shouting in a private room or playing loud music in your car; running or walking briskly around the block or dancing to your favourite music.
Phone a friend: Call someone close to you. Psychologists call it ‘social support’ and it works wonders. Connecting with someone who knows you and whom you trust can make a huge difference. If you don’t have time to talk now, make a date to meet in the very near future.
Get out: Leave the kitchen, even if only temporarily. Sometimes boredom or loneliness can be your emotional trigger. So, break the routine. Drive or walk to the supermarket for milk – anything to get out and break the monotony. Try joining an evening class once a week – soon it will become a crucial social outlet for you, and a much-needed bit of ‘me time’.
Write in a journal: Some people find this an excellent way to untangle their feelings, check in with themselves and decompress. You are less likely to overeat when you have taken the time to understand what’s driving your hunger and to think about what you might do instead. Other people find it useful to keep a gratitude journal. Write three things you’re grateful for each day. It’s enough to make you feel more positive overall, reducing the need to emotionally eat.
Breathe: Try this simple exercise: empty all the air slowly from your lungs, and count on your fingers as you do this. Then inhale. Try to do it again, extending the time you exhale. This will help you to reconnect with yourself and to be in the moment. Not only that, it will get more oxygen pumping around the body and it will energise you to take the steps you need to get away from temptation.
Soothe: Sip on your favourite herbal tea, light tea lights around the house, or a beautiful scented candle, have a long soak in a bath, book a massage, give yourself a manicure/pedicure or treat yourself to new pajamas – whatever works for you to help you feel soothed and loved. Also remember to get plenty of rest – emotional eating will hit more frequently if you are deprived of sleep or just run down/burnt out so prioritise early nights or catch-up sleeps.