Emotional eating refers to seeking comfort and soothing emotions, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, boredom or loneliness, through food. It may be that you are facing a difficult problem or dealing with stressors such as relationship, work or financial issues, and food becomes a way of dealing with the issues or stress. Food may be viewed as a reward, and low mood or anxiety can also trigger overeating. A number of triggers can in fact develop, and these include physical, emotional, social and cognitive (or thinking) triggers.
Emotional eating often leads to thinking about food a lot of the time, eating when stressed or anxious, sad, angry, lonely or tired, rewarding yourself with food, not knowing why you are eating, eating until feeling stuffed, feeling guilty about overeating, or having a ‘love-hate’ relationship with food.
As infants, when we are upset, we are soothed with food or drink, so we learn about eating for comfort from a young age. It may also be that a parent shows love through preparing food, or there are strong messages given or modelling around food being comforting. Unfortunately individuals may experience trauma as they develop, such as neglect or abuse in some form, and food can be turned to as a comfort. In addition, in our society, we learn to get rid of uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible, whereas sometimes we actually need to sit with these feelings until they pass.
Eating is a behavior and we naturally fall into habits with respect to food. For example, if we are used to eating cereals and milk each morning, we associate the morning with having cereals, and having them becomes a habit. If we associate going to the petrol station with buying not only petrol but lollies, soft drink or chocolate, then a new habit can be established. If we associate being sad with eating sweet foods, habit can be part of the problem. We quickly learn habits, but the good news is that we can change them quite readily too.
Here are 10 essentials for overcoming emotional eating:
1. Self-care: Look after your self with enough sleep, manage your stress with e.g. breathing, music, exercise …
2. Have a change mindset: a mindset that change is possible, step-by-step, and that you can improve your health and wellbeing each day. Set some realistic goals to work towards, based on what is important to you. With each improvement, you feel more motivation, more energy, more confidence.
3. Establish new eating behaviours: CHOOSE to enjoy healthy foods, have regular meals including protein, less empty calories, smaller portions, plenty of water during the day, and avoid eating after dinner (make up a this kitchen is closed after dinner sign). And remove unhealthy foods from the house.
4. Practise mindfulness: refers to paying attention on purpose, in the moment, using your senses. It is enjoyable and relaxing. Eat and drink mindfully – notice the colours, textures, smell and taste of food. Eat slowly, small portions on your fork or small bites chew well focus on the food. If your thoughts wander, come back to being mindful of the food – savor it.
5. Use the word ‘STOP’: learn to associate the word stop with food traps e.g. chocolate. If you have a craving, use the word STOP / see a stop sign in your mind. And then take a few moments to breathe. It can be helpful to notice your thoughts and feelings at the time – where do they sit in the body, what do they look like, feel like. Then make space for them, and allow them to subside as you breathe in and out to them.
6. Ask yourself “what does my body need right now?” How does my body feel, am I hungry, and what does my body need right now? Do I need a drink, food, no food, or to do something else?
7. Be aware of head versus stomach hunger: Emotional hunger feels sudden and urgent, with it you tend to eat more than usually would, and it can be associated with a specific craving. The craving can be triggered by unrelated things and it will pass. It is just a signal to let you know that you need to manage the situation, so learn to surf it (ride it until it passes).
8. Find other ways to deal with feelings: deal with emotional hunger in different way to body hunger. You no longer need to distance your feelings, or bury them with food; rather soothe them via expression (talking, music, writing), or have a bath, do some exercise, or read a book.
9. Have a positive mindset: there are many ways to enhance your positivity, such as being grateful for the blessings in your life, being kind to others, connecting with others, doing things that you are passionate about and that fit with your purpose.
10. Show yourself self-compassion: challenge those self-critical thoughts, if you would not say to others, then must not say to self. Practice kindness to yourself.
Watch the shop for an e-book all about emotional eating and some hypnosis recordings. I am working on them currently and they are not far away!