10 Reasons Why Emotional Eating Happens and 10 Ways to Stop

By Georgie Fear | Emotional Eating

Sep 06

1. Wanting to avoid a task.

I’ll get to that, right after a snack. Ok, now, time to get to that work I need to do…. Hmm, maybe just a bit more food first. Procrastineating is commonplace, and isn’t necessarily a problem unless it’s getting in the way of your health or productivity goals. It’s easy to see how stalling by nibbling can contribute to extra pounds, in addition to not getting as much done as we could be.

2. Delaying a confrontation.

This is really similar to the above problem of procrastineating, but specifically, avoiding a confrontation with another person has a separate element of squashing down our feelings, not just buying us a few more minutes.  

3. Needing a break from work, responsibility or pressure.

Try to keep yourself in perpetual work mode 24/7 and you’ll find out that it’s an impossible task. If you don’t plan and allow yourself breaks and rests to balance out your daily exertion and toil, you’ll end up sooner or later zoning out, often into food you don’t physically need.

4. Wanting to not feel anything.

Scientific evidence backs the numbing qualities of eating. We feel more physical and emotional pain in a fasted state, compared to when we are fed, but unfortunately, all the food in the world can’t numb strong pain completely or permanently. In the absence of other ways to cope with discomfort, though, it’s understandable how easily we can turn to food.

5. To lift and comfort ourselves in sadness.

Pleasant stimuli like creamy mouthfeel, rich flavors, crispiness, and sweetness are appealing when emotionally we feel empty, sad, or are grieving a loss. Even if we aren’t hungry or have no appetite, the temporary lift and distraction from taste and smell can make eating feel so rewarding that it becomes a recurring habit, potentially leading to weight gain.

6. For company during loneliness.

Humans don’t thrive on our own for unlimited stretches of time. Even introverts can thirst for conversation, company, or just someone to reassure us we aren’t alone and that our thoughts and ideas are understandable. Feeling commonality with other human beings is a basic psychological need. In the absence of that connection, we can reach for food or make purchases to try and feel better. “Maybe adding this to my world will help.”

7. For a diversion when we are bored.

Life contains a lot of patterns, such as daylight activity and nighttime routines, driving the same roads, walking the dog at the same times, and these rituals can help ease anxiety and make us feel safe and organized. However, spontaneity and change reward us by piquing our interest, and getting us to think in new ways. One of the ways we add variety to our lives is by trying new foods, or foods we haven’t had in a whille, or visiting a restaurant we haven’t dined at before. These can be enriching positive experiences, but turning to food as the default anytime we don’t know what else to do can mean that we eat many times a day when we aren’t hungry, or wander into the kitchen and start munching whenever we’re home alone for more than an hour.

8. To cope with tiredness.

Being tired isn’t comfy. It makes your head foggy, your eyelids droop, and your head subtly ache. It feels difficult to get up out of your chair to do a small task, yet at the same time hard to focus even if you sit still. And tiredness isn’t just a physical condition - it’s accompanied by emotional characteristics such as feeling easily bothered and low on patience. So in a sense, being fatigued can be as much an emotionally difficult state as a physically hampered one. And in this state, going to food may seem like a promising solution. Eating doesn’t require a lot of thought, focus, or physical exertion, we don’t have to talk or have our wits about us, it seems like an appealing thing to be doing when we’re tired as hell!

9. To soothe anxiety.

“Do something!”, anxiety says. “Do it now! This situation as it is is NOT OK.” Yet the vague not okayness and the something that we absolutely need to do about it may never seem to show themselves. Or, anxiety can bloom from caring deeply about something that it is simply beyond our control. We feel restless, discontent, and uncomfortable. Changing our state and doing ANYTHING can seem better than doing nothing, and grabbing food in those moments of anxiety is all too easy.

10. To act out, feel rebellious.

Damn the media and their ultra-thin beauty standards! This traffic makes me want to scream! To heck with my boss and his preferential treatment of people at work! Argh, why is my bank charging those fees to my account?! Many things in life can make us feel trapped, coerced, controlled and pinned down. Even our own diet rules about what we can or can’t eat can spark rebellion and a desire to do the exact opposite. What we choose to eat is one of the few things about which we actually do have free choice, so (like fashion) it’s an avenue by which our rebellious moments can erupt. Taking control of the world may not be possible, but grabbing food (especially food someone else would look down on) can be a hasty way we flip the bird to all the worldly forces trying to control us.


10 Things to Do About Emotional Eating

1. Let the feeling out by writing it down instead of burying it.

No matter what the feeling is, there’s a benefit to writing it down. “What on earth will that do?” you might be thinking. It’s true, no one will intervene because you’re feeling sad or step in and call a time out because you’re feeling overwhelmed. A white horse won’t stride up, ridden by a handsome knight to slay your feeling and set you free. However, getting rid of the feeling or getting out of your reality isn’t the goal.

If you jot down “I notice I’m feeling _______.” it does three key things. First, it requires you to put a name to your emotion. This helps you wrap your brain around it more and understand what is going on with you more than “Aaaaargh, bad feels…. Need cookie!!!!!” (Emotional brains don’t naturally pin specific words or descriptors to a situation, which can make the feeling seem all encompassing, like we’re surrounded by 360 degrees of BAD as far as the eye can see, feeling BAD in the past, present and future, all we can see, hear and touch is BAD. We are BAD.) Writing down the specific emotions you can identify is indescribably helpful in defining the feeling. And once something has a definition, it has borders.

Second, writing down “I notice I’m feeling _______” separates your observy brain from the emotional brain that is just feeling it. Now you’re able to step aside and notice it, observe it, not fuse your consciousness into one with the feeling. Now it’s more like a specimen under glass, or a weather phenomenon you can observe in the sky, it’s not YOU.

Third, it automatically generates a mindful moment. Getting a piece of paper, a pen or pencil, and finding a surface to scrawl on may only take 30 seconds but it’s a pause when you need it most. And it’s hard to get yourself to do, which is why it is so beneficial.

Deciding to take that pause is powerful because the urge to react or distract ourselves is going to be strong. Both of those are the opposite of mindfulness, they are focusing away from the feeling and they keep emotional eating patterns going strong. Intervene! By choosing to take those 30 seconds you are choosing to care for your own wellness and help yourself learn to be in control of how you act when your emotions are running high. Notice if you are continually refusing to take those 30 seconds, and be radically honest, asking yourself if you truly want to change.

2. Talk to someone, even yourself, out loud.

Does it make you feel silly? If it works, do you care? Similarly to writing down that you notice you’re feeling a certain way, verbalizing it checks a lot of the same proverbial boxes. Translating feelings into spoken (as opposed to written) words gives us the same benefits, plus there’s an added effect of communication with another person. It feels good to be understood, and get something off our chest, even if the other person just listens and gives no advice. (In fact, often we feel best if they don’t try and advise us!)  If you’re going to talk to yourself, start off with the same sentence stem as the writing suggestion above. “I notice I’m feeling _____.” And then, keep going!

3. Practice difficult conversations.

Not every fix for emotional eating has to be something you do in the thick of an emotional uproar. You can plan ahead and set yourself up for smooth sailing by acknowledging that if difficult conversations make you want to run off and hide with a box of Oreos, you can do something about it.

A lot of us are naturally conflict averse, even conflict phobic, and that can lead to not opening our mouths and speaking up when something is bothering us. It can lead to not asking for something that would make our lives easier (since we “don’t want to bother anyone”) and in the inevitable situation when we eventually have a disagreement with someone or get unfavorably reviewed… we can feel many degrees worse than we would if we had taken time to get comfortable with difficult conversations.

It’s outside the scope of this brief article to talk about the volumes of ways a person can work on their communication skills, but I did want to mention that it’s an immeasurable relief to stop feeling the heavy stone of dread in your stomach at every potential even mildly unfavorable interaction. (That used to be me.) And a little practice or even just reading can be a major player in not having icky-conversation-induced runs to the bakery (that would be me as well.) Two books which I recommend are:

Crucial Conversations http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15014.Crucial_Conversations

Communication Skills: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25826761-communication-skills-training

4. Stretch, move, or dance.

Moving your body has a way of decreasing alarm, releasing tension, and bringing in a sense of control. You hear people say all the time that feel more clear-headed after a run, or that they have more perspective after a yoga session. It’s not imaginary. You can thank changes in neurotransmitters and arousal level for exercise’s therapeutic effect during highly emotional times. Not to mention, once you’re outside moving, food won’t be within eyesight or arm’s reach, so instead of emotionally eating, you can focus on the fresh air, your breath, or how your muscles and limbs feel.  


5. Nap or go to sleep for the night.

Intense emotions are exhausting, and sometimes giving ourselves a break from feeling and thinking about whatever is bothering us leads to a breakthrough. Staying up late all too easily leads to munching, and shorting ourselves on sleep for just one night ramps up appetite for the following day.

6. Remind yourself that you always have choices.

Whatever caused the situation that’s sparking intense emotions - even if it’s completely out of our control - we get to choose how we react. We can choose to argue, to listen, to fight back, apologize or ask for an apology. We can choose to do nothing about it. We have complete autonomy over what we say and choose to do, and focusing on using that precious power in a way that fits our values can supplant the desire to react with food.  

7. Ensure that you take breaks to rest and play regularly.

After more than 10 years of coaching people who struggle with emotional eating, it would be impossible for me to ignore a clear pattern: people who habitually manage emotions with food also tend to habitually manage them through avoidance, aka working all the time. “I find it hard to sit still”, “I always feel like I could get more done”, or “I haven’t done enough” are common sentiments.

When was the last time you just hung out, relaxed or did nothing? Played tag or catch with your kid or fetch with your dog? Went to a movie or got a massage? Chronically lacking these experiences in favor of a perpetual must-be-productive mode might be just the thing you need to quell urges to eat when not hungry.

8. Chat with a friend or a group online.

Facebook and other forms of social media are tricky. They can be intensely isolating and depressing, (“look at all the fun other people are having while I’m cleaning up dog vomit, soothing a screaming toddler, and working overtime”) or they can help us feel connected to other people. The best way to feel supported is to have an interaction with others. That means not lurking, but touching keys to make and share words. If you’re most comfortable one on one, send a personal message to a close friend. If you have a supportive group you are a member of, sharing what is going on with you is likely to bring you into contact with many other people who can relate. If anyone’s remarks seem nasty or disrespectful, you have my permission to block them. I do. 🙂

9. Sit with your emotions and breathe. Remember that feelings are temporary, harmless.

The grandest change of all in the experience of emotions is when we realize what they actually are. While a feeling can seem like it’s forever, or we can believe that it will overpower us, kill us, or that we “can’t handle it”, none of these have actually ever happened to a person. Feelings are not dangerous. They can make people do dangerous, uncaring or hurtful things, or they can be unpleasant, but when you consider that a feeling is nothing more than temporary impulses along neurons, they become easier to handle. You can see a feeling as a thing you are having or experiencing, and that you can and will outlive it. What you do during uncomfortable moments is up to you, and you can choose to practice anything on this list instead of reaching for food if that isn’t, in the big picture, what you want for yourself.

10: If there's someone around that you feel safe with, get a hug. Hug yourself.

Human connection and touch have a physical calming effect as well as an emotionally healing one. Hugs are free, and often leave you feeling better than snacking would. I’ve never regretted a hug.


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About the Author

Georgie Fear RD CSSD is Chief Science Officer of One By One Nutrition, as well as an experienced coach, writer, and lover of listening to and helping people wherever she goes.