It can come on without warning. It just sneaks up on you and then grabs hold and fills you with an urgency. An urgency to eat ASAP. For some this urge can happen several times a day or night, everyday and for others it happens at specific times or is triggered by specific events or people. All of these people, no matter what their pattern is, are considered to be ’emotional eaters’.
The food of choice for emotional/stress eaters is often from a very specific category. This category is “comfort foods”. The comfort foods may be savoury or sweet or both. It might be a ton of crispy bacon with a side of a quart or more of ice cream.
What ever the case, the emotional eater in you feels like a slave to this craving crisis and it is food that is the master. Those first twenty minutes of mindless, automatic ‘reach and eat’ definitely seems to help. For you feel a flood of relief from those difficult feelings that once occupied that space inside you. As a result of eating those comfort foods, it is like those difficult feelings have disappeared and you have been given a reprieve from the uncomfortable to unbearable intensity of feelings you had been experiencing perhaps for minutes or even hours.
The feeling of relief is so powerful that your food remedy serves to either distract or even numb you. The challenge enters when you ‘forget’ that your choice only brings about a temporary state of relief or numbness. These feelings soon disappear and are replaced with feelings of regret, embarrassment, sadness, guilt and shame. Then the next emotional arrow hits and it triggers another emotional eating episode. You become ‘stuck’ in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of ‘pain-relief-shame’.
Knowing is Not Enough . . .
It is not enough to know that as an emotionally eater, you are using food to comfort, numb or reward yourself. You get an upsetting phone call or text or email and suddenly you are ‘starving’. Perhaps you are out socially and are feeling left out of the conversation or it’s been a long day with the kids and everyone is now in bed – what a perfect time to ‘reward’ yourself. What could be easier that grabbing some cookies and eating that half full bag of chips? You end up using food not just as nutrition but also as a coping mechanism for life.
Feelings, such as loneliness, hopelessness or past trauma, that you can not face head on or are not yet able to identify can be frightening and even overwhelming. It feels especially overwhelming if you don’t have the skills to do so. For example, many hate the thought of dealing with conflict. It fills most of us with dread and anxiety. So reaching for food is a go-to quick fix that requires no demands, like learning the skills of conflict mediation. So these emotional eating behaviours quickly become habits. Habits that can keep you trapped in a cycle of never-ending pain avoidance by eating foods that comfort you.
If you are not quite sure of your triggers then using a calendar or journal to track yourself for a few weeks can be an eye-opener. Pay close attention to which emotions push you to visit that fast food drive-thru on the way home or keeps you up eating at night. What feelings make you most hungry? Maybe it is boredom or loneliness or anger or sadness to name just a few. Record these episodes and begin to look for regular patterns: which are your top three feelings? What is the time and place you end up emotionally eating? This can help you get a better and more accurate handle on your triggers.
Building Solutions to Emotionally Eating . . .
1. “Pausing”: Each time a food craving strikes ask yourself “Why do I want to eat?” instead “What do I want to eat?” This critical ‘why’ questions is actively engaging your mind instead of your stomach and it helps to silence your triggers. Your mind is naturally designed to solve problems. When you ask, yourself “Why do I want to eat?” , you are inviting your mind to help you recognize the event or people that are causing you stress and then formulating effective solutions that don’t involve eating. These answers may not come to you immediately or as fast as your would like but they will arrive. In the meantime, this pause short circuits your cravings by keeping them at bay, long enough that the urge to eat passes. Your brain is too busy focusing on problem solving to be concerned about eating. This leads you to choose other solutions than food which in turn can increase your self-confidence, self-esteem and even help you to uphold your weight goals.
2. Calling a H.A.L.T. to eating that isn’t going to help you move forward with your weight loss efforts or isn’t going to help you get your real needs met.H.A.L.T. stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired – all feeling states that make you vulnerable to emotional eating. Before reaching for those comfort foods, ask yourself, ” What do you really need?” For example, if you are truly hungry then reaching for high nutrient dense foods (with low calorie density) can help you to fully nourish your body and satisfy your hunger needs instead of emotionally eating processed foods that are low in nutrient density and high in calorie density, leaving you dissatisfied and hungry again.. Eating more to stay awake instead of taking a brief power nap will not help either.
3. Creating a ‘Safe’ Environment: means being aware that there are “hot spots” that can spark food cravings.
- Home: This is a place where that you, like so many others, find it a source of happiness and a source of stress. It is where you can “cocoon” yourself from the world and yet it is often our loved ones who can trigger us the most. As a check-in for yourself make a quick list of those things that really get your stress meter climbing and then finding yourself using food as a comforting safety net to help you avoid feeling those uncomfortable, sometimes quite painful feelings. On a post-it note write each stressor you have identified and then below it this question: “How am I going to feel an hour from now after an episode of emotional/stress eating? Then post these notes on your refrigerator and pantry / cupboard doors. This can help you to ‘pause’ and give yourself some much needed space to circumvent the autopilot that often accompanies emotional/stress eating episodes.
- The Car; Driving with the demands of the road, then add passengers vying for attention and of course, the radio playing ‘that song’ that brings back upsetting memories coupled with a deluge of fast food drive-thru opportunities at every corner – this all adds up to a lot of stress! So before you get in the car – do the post-it note exercise you did at home and place the post-it on the dash so you can create a reminder to take a pause before impulsively acting to quiet your anxiety and stress in a destructive way.
- Work: The challenges of facing a demanding boss, difficult co-workers or unrealistic work demands can be overwhelming. Most of us try to keep it together because having anyone at work finding out about our stress eating would bring on so much shame, it would be paralyzing. So what do you do? Many emotional/stress eating episodes take place when we are assured of privacy at work, such as in a closed door office or even a bathroom stall or lunch out alone. Most often it is more tempting to stress eat in the car on the way home or afterwork at home. Again use the post-it note method to serve as a self check-in and post it where it is for your eyes only, like in a desk drawer or in an appointment diary.
4. Build Yourself a Rescue Kit:
The key challenge of emotional/stress eating episodes that we often put down to ‘cravings’ is that you, like us all, are craving to escape. Escape from addressing your real needs, hurts and concerns. How come we don’t just address them? Because many times they are surrounded by a wall of fear and seem insurmountable – and leave us feeling unskilled to address them. Yet skill only comes with practice.
So once trigger feelings are identified, it is time to use an envelope or shoe box and fill it with items that help you to address the feelings that trigger the stress eating episodes. It might be a an inspirational saying; or poem or picture or even a song on a CD. It might be the phone numbers of a friend or two. Or some aromatherapy items. Include all things that can help shift your mood and soothe you. There are no limits – put anything in your box or envelop that helps remind you to address the real feelings instead of trying to eat them away. You may even want to create a pocket or purse size kit for easy access when out and about.
5. Practice, practice, practice:
To get better and better at attending to your own needs, regular practice is necessary. This will be a trial and error process as you slowly and surely discover what works for you. Emotional/stress eating requires you to abandon yourself and does not address your true feelings, needs and concerns. It involves putting your truths in the context that you are the ‘expert’ of your situation and you know what is really going on and therefore are capable of finding ways to get your needs met without self-harm. This might mean reaching out to others for additional help. No mateer what, you are still in charge and not the food. Freedom from this vey common self-abuse cycle is possible!! You are so deserving of this!!
You may be interested in our next Fork Smart: “Staying Power” WPB Lifestyle Support Group meeting (we talk about a wide range of challenges) on Monday, October 22nd at 6:45 8:30 pm at 16 Woodglen Gate SW, Calgary (off Anderson and 24th – Woodbine Area. Here are more details: https://forksmart.org/events/