Overcoming Emotional Eating

By Jen Wood

Jen Wood is an emotional wellbeing coach, psychotherapist and wellbeing consultant. She is based at Restoration Yard in Dalkeith Country Park and during the Covid-19 pandemic, is helping us with some of the problems we face from coping with uncertainty to working from home and today, comfort eating. This post includes a short hypnotherapy session.

Why we comfort eat

Difficult emotions can be a response to one of our basic needs not being met. It might be a need for safety and security, or connected and close to the people we love. This can manifest as a physical discomfort in our body, like a knot in the stomach or a lump in the throat. The natural tendency is to try and get rid of uncomfortable feelings, and we all have our familiar habits or safety behaviours, that we use to try and comfort ourselves. At times like this we don’t always eat to satisfy hunger, but for comfort, to relieve stress, or as a reward.

If you’ve found yourself eating more when you’ve been physically distancing, self-isolating or working from home, then you’re not alone. There is a surge of stress and anxiety at the moment, and when we are stressed, we often crave sweet and carb rich foods. These foods give us short-term energy hits and produce dopamine which is the chemical messenger associated with motivation and reward. Stress causes higher levels of cortisol, which can increase appetite.

Why it makes us feel worse, not better

Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems and usually makes us feel worse. The original emotion remains and we can feel guilt and shame for overeating and can beat ourselves up for not having more willpower. To make matters worse, if we put on weight this can trigger that inner voice which tells us that we are ‘not good enough,’ which many of us are familiar with at the best of times. The occasional use of food as a reward or celebration isn’t bad, but when responding to our unmet needs by stuffing them down with eating becomes our default coping strategy, then it’s time to change.

When we use food (and other similar things like alcohol and drugs) to comfort us, we learn that the reward circuit of our brain (the nucleus accumbens) which is associated with comfort eating, is also associated with addictions. In addition to that, the effect on our motivation when we comfort eat can impact our ability to choose healthier ways to deal with our emotions, leading us to put on weight and feel increasingly powerless.

What can we do?

Learning to recognise emotional eating triggers is the first step to breaking free from food cravings and compulsive overeating. Here are some ideas to help you overcome emotional eating:

Know your triggers by keeping a food and mood diary...

Some common ones are:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Depression
  • Loneliness or isolation
  • Tiredness
  • Boredom
  • Habit

We can also have a tendency to comfort eat if that’s been a pattern for us in the past. Keep a food and mood diary and understand which emotions you tend to numb with food.

Find alternative ways to respond to your triggers.

  • If you’re stressed dance to your favourite track, practise some breathing or grounding, do some exercise, go out for a walk or smile to release the happy hormones. Schedule in some worry time, or practice some breathing and grounding.
  • If you’re depressed eat together as a family if possible, or connect with friends and share intentions at the start of the day and gratitude at the end of the day.
  • If you’re lonely or isolated, contact a supportive friend or colleague, give yourself a hug (that releases happy hormones too) or cuddle the cat. Join a social media group and ‘share’ meals or recipes.
  • If you’re tired, have a break and do some self-care.
  • If you’re bored, do something that you enjoy, even if it’s for one minute. That’s all you need to shift your attention away from food.

STOPP and Pause

Give yourself five minutes before you give in to comfort eating.

Use the STOPP acronym:

  • Stop
  • Take a breath
  • Observe – what am I thinking, feeling in my body and reacting to?
  • Pull back – see the bigger picture and imagine how someone else might see this.
  • Practise what nourishes me – what’s the best thing for you to do in this situation?

Feel your feelings

As yourself, how you can allow yourself to feel any difficult feelings, briefly, rather than stuffing them down with food? We can practise allowing ourselves to feel, which is a better long-term strategy for developing resilience. When we do this, it’s important to meet these feelings with a bit of kindness and compassion rather than judgement.

Eat Mindfully

Eating while you’re working, on the internet, watching Netflix or on your phone, can mean eating on autopilot. Your mind is elsewhere and you may continue eating even beyond the point of feeling full. If you practice eating more mindfully, you can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb overeating. If you can allow yourself to savour your food, you will find yourself slowing down and enjoying your food more, and probably losing a bit of weight as well.

Success comes in small steps, and as you practise these techniques, you will find that your emotions will no longer trigger that urge to numb yourself with food, and your emotional wellbeing and resilience will increase.

Hypnotherapy can be a helpful support when we are developing new more nurturing habits, so I’m offering a short session to help you through this difficult time.

Jen is offering online Mindfulness Meditation (Mondays) and Reduce Stress - Feel Good (Fridays) classes via Zoom on Mondays and Fridays at 12noon. Jen also offers individual wellbeing coaching, therapy and mindfulness sessions via Zoom or by phone. To find out more, head to Jen’s website.

Jen Wood, Wellbeing Consultant, Restoration Yard