We are emotional creatures, in fact, we are emotional creatures with 27 different human emotions. Therefore having a reaction to an emotion is healthy and is a part of our unique makeup. Learning to understand emotional eating and coping mechanisms can significantly impact your health and well-being.
It’s true that food can be used to help soothe the emotion, but it doesn’t always necessarily solve the root cause of the emotion itself. Food itself can evoke emotions. For instance, have you ever caught yourself saying “I feel guilty that I have eaten that”. That feeling of guilt ties morals to the food saying that you have done something bad by eating it. To help with these feelings it’s important to shower yourself in compassion and grace, understanding that it is okay to self soothe and emotional eat, but it is also important we understand why we are using it to cope. Bringing awareness to emotional eating can be key to understanding it and having other tools to cope when needed.
Types of Emotional Eating
Boredom and Procrastination
Say that you are working from home, as many of us are thanks to the pandemic, and you catch yourself wandering over to the pantry whenever you take a break from sitting at your desk. Each visit you bring back a handful of chips to munch on as you work on your daily reports while staring at a screen. This is a perfect example of boredom eating or disconnected eating. This type of eating occurs when you are trying to make a boring task easier to tolerate. Whereas if you had an engaging task you may find yourself more apt to pay attention and work on it than get up and grab that handful of chips.
Eating can be used to put off important tasks that need to get done. Imagine you are back in school and you have a big research project due at the end of the week. You know you need to be working on it, but instead you choose to sit on the couch, watch your favorite television show, and eat a bag of popcorn. I’m sure we can all relate to this, especially when it’s a project that you are dreading doing. Eating the popcorn may provide some instant relief but it isn’t going to get the project done. Have a nourishing snack if desired to help you focus and get to it!
Bribery and Reward
When I was little, I used to hate needles so much it would take 5 doctors to hold me down to get a shot. My mom was starting to get tired of having to catch me while I squirmed and eventually started telling me “if you’re good, I’ll get you an ice cream after your appointment”. Being 5 years old I made it a point to not squirm during my appointments because I knew I’d be getting that treat later in the day. Even now I notice I have some behaviors that I have carried from this experience and I reward myself with something tasty if I do well. I’m sure we all have had some experience like this.
Whether it be from your childhood or just an inner sense of accomplishment that you feel deserves a treat. An adult example of this would be getting a big promotion at work and treating yourself with that sugary coffee you only get on special occasions. It’s important to remember that these are things that you can have at any point in time, not just after a task or for good behavior and it’s okay to celebrate with certain foods!
Thinking Prompt: Ask yourself if you have other ways to celebrate? This can be a really fun question to explore. There are so many ways to reward yourself with other forms of self care!
Think about your favorite restaurant. Now while you are doing that, think about why you love the restaurant so much. Does it have the best appetizers for cocktail hours? Is the ambiance so inviting that you cannot get enough? Imagine how you feel knowing you will be going there to eat that evening with your friends and you still have a full day of work ahead of you before you get to. Food is an experience and can be used to add excitement to your life, and it is important to note that it is okay.
Thinking Prompt: Are there other ways you create excitement in life? Do other activities bring you excitement? Have you tried something new lately?
Food can be used for self soothing, especially when you’re in a moment of time that is troubling. An example that “Intuitive Eating” gives is a young girl who had a father who had a bitter personality. As a way to counter his personality, she would soothe with candy to add a little “sweet” into her life. This is okay to do, however it can turn into disconnected eating and you have chronic triggers causing this response it can negatively impact your health. Finding support through tough times or addressing childhood traumas with a therapist is important.
Thinking Prompt: What other forms of self care do you practice? Are there constant triggers in your life you feel the need to self-soothe?
Food is commonly used as love, for example Valentines Day chocolates or a home cooked meal from a loved one. Some friends and family members express their love through food better than they do through physical touch or action. Acts of service and gift giving are beautiful love languages that can be expressed with food but remember it’s important to respect how others receive love as well.
Thinking Prompt: Do you express love through food or cook for others? What other ways do you receive or show love?
Highly recommend reading: 5 Love Languages
Frustration, Anger and Rage
Frustration for some can mean going for a long exercise session, venting to a friend, screaming into a pillow, or eating something crunchy. That’s right, some people use crunchy foods as a way to release their feelings of frustration, anger or rage. Crunchy food can be a way of releasing feelings for some people. If you find yourself reaching for that bag of pretzels or popcorn even though you’re not hungry, you may want to check in with your body and note why you are doing so.
Thinking Prompt: Do you notice these emotions? Observe how it makes your body feel? Are you tense? Would a kickbox class help or a yoga session? Talking it out with someone?
Worry or emotional strain can cause you to reach for the nearest candy bar or bowl of ice cream, but what’s funny about stress is your body’s biological mechanisms associated with stress turns off the desire to eat. Stress is our body’s fight or flight feeling, and back in caveman days it was used to run from big hungry animals or fight off enemies. It releases glucose into the bloodstream and slows digestion to ensure the body has plenty of energy to use during this moment of “fight or flight”. Today our stressors look a little different and can be chronic. For instance running late while fighting off traffic or fleeing from encroaching work deadlines. The extra release of blood sugar isn’t really needed during these times and can lead to a variety of different disease states. Cortisol is also released during moments of high stress and can cause your body to have a difficulty with regulating your body’s inflammatory and immune responses. Given stress’ ability to impact health, it’s important that you have some other avenues to manage it.
Here are some great examples and tools for emotional eating and coping mechanisms:
- If you’re struggling with positive affirmations and are in need of some good prompts, check out my recent blog here.
- Joyful movement (at least 30 minutes a day)
- If you enjoy running, go for a run! If you enjoy weight lifting, do that. What matters is that you enjoy it and have a way to fit it into your schedule. Exercise provides many benefits including boosting your “happy” hormones called endorphins. It also helps regulate your blood sugar levels, and decreases risks for chronic disease. If you can, definitely prioritize some form of movement you enjoy into your routine
- The calm app is a great tool to use if you struggle with meditating on your own. If you have an apple watch, you can also utilize it’s breathe feature.
- Get adequate sleep
- Spend some time outside
- Take a brisk walk during your lunch break
- Connect with a support person
- Prioritize time with a friend and have a meaningful heart-to-heart
Anxiety and Mild Depression
Have you ever been in a situation where you feel overly anxious? Like waiting to hear back on a new job, or on a grade on a final. Some people describe that anxious feeling like butterflies in the stomach, and with that feeling comes with eating. Those with mild depression also experience this desire to turn to food.
In times like these, it’s important that you meet your feelings with kindness. Journaling is a great way to express your feelings, but so is calling a friend to talk, recording them on your phone, sitting with your feelings, or speaking with a licensed mental health provider. Ask yourself what you need and then let your loved ones know how they can help. These two steps are called “what do I need” and “would you please”. For example, if you need rest but you have a busy schedule and a spouse you may need to ask your spouse for time to unwind during the day so you can gain that much needed rest.
Thinking Prompt: What are your coping mechanisms? Do you have support?
It’s healthy to want to a connection with your peers and loved ones. At times these connections revolve around meals. Do you ever notice yourself not enjoying the meal but partaking because your friends or family members are? While you may not be honoring your taste buds you are still able to honor your body and connections
Thinking Prompt: Can you be more engaged in conversation? If you aren’t hungry can you still express gratitude for the food and take leftovers?
Needing to Relax and Let Go
This one is for our high achievers out there. These are those people who maintain high expectations for themselves and rigid discipline. Enneagram 3s, I see you. However, everyone needs an outlet to release some of the self-imposed control over their lives. For those who are high achievers, this outlet may lead to relinquishing control and overeating. While food may be comforting and soothing in that moment, it’s also good to recognize what you’re feeling and like mentioned earlier, asking yourself what you need.
What is it that you need in order to properly relax and let go? Do you have a favorite activity you haven’t done because of your schedule, do you enjoy reading, or do you find taking a nice long bath with a cozy bath bomb and candles? Dig into yourself and discover what you need, and communicate with your loved ones with how they are able to help.
Thinking Prompt: Are you eating constantly throughout the day despite a busy schedule? Sometimes this can confuse our bodies, leaving us ravenous when we get the opportunity to eat. Can you schedule time throughout your day to take a pause moment to eat and relax?
Steps To Be Intentional With Emotional Eating and Coping Mechanisms:
The first step of being intentional with emotional eating is to ask yourself if you are hungry. If you are, then eat! If you’re not, ask yourself what you’re feeling. This is not an easy task if you’re not in touch with your feelings. Like mentioned earlier in this blog, journaling, talking it out or processing in an undistracted environment can be powerful tools to understanding your feelings. Depending on your needs, you may want to consider talking to a therapist to discover these feelings that are leading to emotional eating.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I need?
- When was the last time I ate?
- Am I hungry? Do I have any symptoms of hunger?
- Am I in a place where I can enjoy the food I am craving?
Discovering what you need will allow for you to separate the emotion from your desire to eat. Asking yourself when you ate last or if you have any symptoms of hunger helps identify if you are truly hungry. If you find yourself associating a particular emotion with eating rather than hunger, then it may be a sign to find an alternative way to cope with that emotion. If you find yourself struggling with this, as mentioned earlier, asking for help is a strong thing to do. Seeking guidance allows for you to remove something from your plate so you can fully embrace your needs which sometimes includes eating.
Another helpful resource for emotional eating and coping mechanisms: Intuitive Eating Workbook