You know that feeling, when you are reaching into a packet of biscuits, or going back to the fridge or cupboard, time after time, “just one more” your mind confidently and persuasively tells you. You are deep in the moment of emotional eating.
You probably already know intuitively when you are eating for emotional reasons, but just in case you’re not sure, here are 7 signs of emotional eating I have observed in myself and my clients.
1. Intense, urgent hunger that comes on quickly.
2. Hunger comes from your mouth, not your stomach.
3. Crave certain types of foods. Sweets and cookies.
4. Hunger is not satisfied even when your belly is full.
5. Comes with or just after an unpleasant, negative emotion.
6. You can eat without being aware of what you are doing.
7. Followed with guilt and shame and mentally beating yourself up.
This article is in response to this question: What do you recommend for those in the eye of the vicious storm of emotional eating? I know this is a question that you probably have yourself. The problem with this question is that it pre-supposes something which rules out the one answer that will work. Read that again. The question assumes that emotional eating is some kind of storm that hits you, and you can do nothing about it but be swept along, like Dorothy in her red shoes, until it dumps you beaten and battered and an ice cream tub or biscuit packet heavier.
Emotional eating is not a storm that you have no control over. Emotional eating is a learned coping behaviour to avoid unpleasant emotions. Read that again…
Emotional eating is a learned coping behaviour to avoid unpleasant emotions.
A behaviour, which like any behaviour, began as a choice and a decision that was repeated over time. This decision has linked or anchored together two separate things. Emotions & Food. When I am upset, I eat to comfort myself.
To be fair, it sometimes feels like you have no control over the behaviour because often this association was made for you when you were too young to realise that it was a choice. The earliest example being your mothers breast milk to soothe you and stop you crying when you were a baby. Then maybe a sweet treat after a needle at the doctors. These are examples of food as comfort. Then there are sweet foods for celebration, family and love; birthday cake anyone?
Now, as conditioned adults, when we experience an inkling of an unpleasant emotion, it’s off to the fridge to “fix” it. Squash those emotions down inside. Cover them up with cake and cookies. The truth is, you are not even eating the food. You are eating what the food represents to you. You are attempting to eat love, comfort, care, soothing.
This association also assumes a few things. It assumes that unpleasant emotions are not allowed, (“Stop crying!”) and that I must squash them, it also assumes that I am not able to handle my emotions and comfort myself.
So, realising that this was a choice and a pattern, (perhaps at one stage unknowingly made for you by your parents) you can either choose to continue to use this pattern and coping mechanism, or you can choose to develop and practice a new behaviour pattern. You are an adult. You are in charge of your thoughts and behaviour. And not all your thoughts are accurate.
You are an adult. You are in charge of your thoughts and behaviour.
That voice in your head telling you to eat “just one more” is self-destruction in disguise. It is the voice that savagely punishes you when you are finished, bringing out even more unpleasant emotions than the ones you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Here’s the truth:
There are two strategies that will work. A short term, quick fix to break your past pattern in the moment, and a longer term more holistic solution.
Break your emotional eating pattern and state any way you can. When you feel the mouth hunger coming on, immediately stop what you are doing and go outside for a walk. Go and exercise if you can. Do whatever you can to get yourself away from the food.
If you are already eating or about to eat and can’t get away, you can break the pattern in your mind. Imagine something completely disgusting to stop you eating instantly, like steaming, gooey dog poo, vomit or maggots. Make a great big colourful picture in your mind and cover that thing that you used to like in it. Ice cream and maggots. Dog poo tim tams. Ice cream and vomit. Yum. Imagine that disgusting thing until you almost retch. If just picturing it doesn’t do it. Imagine eating it, and how that maggoty dog poo feels in your mouth and sliding down your throat. Blegh! I’m almost retching writing it.
The long term fix is to learn how to handle and process your emotions away from food. There are many ways to do this. The first is to acknowledge that you have emotions, and give yourself permission to feel all of your emotions. Even the uncomfortable ones.
Rather than swimming around in your thoughts, it is quicker to journal out the answers to these questions. or take a long walk and talk to yourself. Often simply breathing deeply and accepting the emotion will be enough for it to come and go with the breath. Yoga and meditation are great practices to learn how to do this in daily life.
Make a regular practice of doing what works for you to sort through the daily accumulation of emotional stuff that builds up. Journalling, yoga, coaching, hypnosis, meditation, long walks, deep breathing are all great things to practice daily or at least a few times per week. Make the time to give yourself regular gifts of true self-love and self-care and emotional eating will soon be a pattern that you have long since left behind, a relic of your childhood, no longer useful.
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