Remember when you were given a cake for passing your exams, or maybe you were offered a chocolate bar to ‘make things better’ after falling and grazing your knee?
These experiences teach us to connect emotions and food. Food is often used as a reward, comfort or sticking plaster when we are young, and often forms the basis of our relationship with it in later life.
Emotional eating is something that many of us have experienced at one time or another. It’s not an abnormal or bad thing, in fact, it’s a perfectly normal way of dealing with emotions good or bad. Food is so embedded within our social culture, we use it to show love, to celebrate and to bring people together. The truth is, it’s absolutely ok to seek reward and comfort from food.
It is only when it becomes problematical, like being stuck in a habitual pattern of rewarding yourself with chocolate or if food is your only source of comfort, that it can help to do a little work on it. Habitual patterns can often be a sign that there is something else going on that requires your attention.
Many of the women I speak to describe a cyclical pattern of behaviour; experiencing emotion, reaching for food to comfort/reward or escape and then experiencing negative emotions like guilt, shame and anger as a result. This type of experience is unpleasant and can be quite overwhelming at times.
How to Manage Problematic Emotional Eating
When I set out to study eating psychology, a great deal of my motivation was fuelled by a need to understand and address my own feelings and behaviours. I knew that my relationship with food – mostly love/hate – was causing me challenges and I instinctively felt that there must be a better way to resolve my problems other than dieting.
These are the steps I suggest to begin the journey to overcoming emotional eating.
- The first step is to identify if it is emotional eating you are experiencing. When we step back to observe our eating behaviours, sometimes we find that actually we were genuinely hungry! We lead such busy lives now leaving long periods between eating. Get curious about your eating. How long was it since you last ate? Are there specific events that caused you to eat?
- If you suspect that you are experiencing emotional eating, then you can start to look at what is causing it by paying attention to what you are thinking and how you feel about experiencing emotion. For example, if you feel ashamed about experiencing negative emotions, it is likely you will look to hide from them or cover them up. The truth is feelings don’t respond to food, they respond to self-compassion and a little mindset work.
- Once you’ve gathered some insight into what is causing you to eat emotionally, you can get to work on changing things.
A growing pool of clinical research shows the remarkable ability of the brain to reorganise itself in response to various sensory experiences. This concept, known as neuroplasticity, suggests that our brains evolve over time. With every repetition of a thought, we reinforce a neural pathway, and with each new thought, we begin to create new ways of being. With enough practice and repetition, small changes can make a big difference in your feelings and behaviour and this is particularly true of emotional eating.
Once you’ve worked on your thoughts a little, you can begin to give some consideration to the other things that provide you with emotional reward and create a toolkit of coping strategies that will create better feelings than if you continue to rely on food.
If you’re reading this and thinking you would like to learn more, then download my guide to recognising the differences between emotional and physical hunger, it’s a great starting point.
If you want to take things further, my online course, Overcome Emotional Eating will provide you with the knowledge, tools and techniques you need to create a better relationship with food.