Do You Eat to Soothe? Breaking Free of Emotion-Driven Eating

Person listens to music in bubble bath with eyes closedHave you ever felt that your eating wasn’t due to hunger? Perhaps you felt an urge or craving that came “out of the blue”? One of the most common reasons for cravings, compulsive or urgent food consumption, consuming food when not hungry is emotion-driven eating. We all eat emotionally some of the time, but if this is your go-to strategy it can lead to more pain than relief.

Emotion-driven eating can occur for a number of reasons. The most common is to soothe painful, difficult, or unwanted emotions. Uncomfortable emotions can stem from guilt or shame for not doing what you “should” do, grief or loss, sadness or depression, paralyzing fear, even anger or frustration. You may feel empty inside, physical pain or discomfort, anxiety, or numbness. Unfortunately, as you probably know, while food can work as a short-lived soothing agent, it often contributes to feelings of shame and hopelessness.

If you have a history of using food to soothe, emotion-driven eating can become habitual or automatic over time. You may find yourself in the kitchen without realizing what got you there. So how do you break the cycle?

Next time you experience the urge to eat when not hungry, check in with yourself, take a few deep breaths, and try the following:

1. Identify What You Are Feeling

This is the most important step in regulating your emotions. For many people, simply identifying and understanding their experience leads to relief. Once you know what you are feeling, you can address what you need.

2. Validate and Accept What You Are Feeling

What we resist persists. When we try to push down difficult emotions, they can come back stronger. On the other hand, when we approach emotions with curiosity, compassion, and kindness, they may dissipate. Notice where you are feeling difficult emotions in your body. Imagine softening around the edges, allowing space for the emotion as opposed to resisting and tightening up around it.

Try saying the following things to yourself to validate what you are feeling:

  • “It makes sense that you are feeling this way.”
  • “It’s okay to be feeling this way.”
  • “It’s normal to have these feelings.”
  • “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this. I love and care about you.”

What would you say to a friend or child experiencing these same feelings?

3. Place a Hand Over the Part of Your Body Where You Feel Emotional Pain

If you can’t identify a specific area in your body, just place your hand over your heart. Touch is a soothing and comforting behavior.

4. Identify Your Need, Goal, or Action

Our emotions provide information about what we need. Consider these examples:

  • When you’re feeling wound up, stressed, or overwhelmed, calm yourself by taking a hot bath or placing a cold washcloth over your face.
  • When you’re feeling sad or lonely, energize yourself with vigorous movement (such as dancing in your living room!).
  • When you’re feeling angry, identify which boundaries you need to restore without violating the boundaries of others.

5. Create a Distress Tool Kit

You are likely aware of some things that help soothe or comfort you when you’re feeling overwhelmed, yet you may easily forget them in the moment. Consider things that engage your senses, as these can help shift your internal experience, as well as activities that help you connect. Here are few suggestions:

  • Essential oils, scented lotion, or candles.
  • Comforting images such as a relaxing photographs, pictures of people you love, or even a photo of yourself as a child.
  • Your favorite music or soundscapes—create a playlist! Relaxing sounds, such as ocean waves, can be calming.
  • Warm or cold items such as tea or a washcloth placed over your head or face. A hot or cold bath/shower also can work.
  • A journal in which to write thoughts, feelings, or express creatively.
  • A list of people you can reach out to for support.
  • Something that makes you laugh, such as a favorite YouTube channel.

6. Savor Positive Experiences

Sometimes it’s easier to notice the negative than the positive. In fact, we’re wired this way for survival. Too often, positive experiences simply pass us by. Making an effort to notice your positive experiences can help provide a buffer during overwhelming times. Set an intention to notice a pleasant experience at the time it is happening. Notice every detail of this experience through each of your senses. Take several moments to savor the experience. Be aware of any resistance you feel to taking it in.

Regulating difficult emotions is no easy task. Be gentle with yourself as you begin to practice new skills. You may find it helpful to work with a therapist to identify new strategies to cope.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Eddins, MEd, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shequan

    July 6th, 2016 at 8:00 AM

    I think that I am an emotional eater because I had to spend a whole lot of time by myself when I was a kid and so how I kept myself from thinking abut being alone and afraid was to eat. It kept my mind off of the scary things that could be happening outside and so it is a habit that I have never broken as an adult.

  • Ted

    July 6th, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    My wife is a stress eater whereas I am the opposite, I get stressed and do not want to eat anything at all. I think that she really envies that but I kind of envy her having that kind of comfort and solace she can find in food.

  • vickie l

    July 7th, 2016 at 12:11 PM

    My biggest problem is that I have forgotten to recognize the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. I always think that I am physically hungry even though logically I know that it is something else that is gnawing at me, but this is how it manifests itself within me. I am afraid for my health because I do overeat all the time, just general unhappiness with my life, but I don’t know where to even start looking to begin getting back some control over that.

  • Kimber

    July 8th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    When I feel the desire to binge eat, as this is my issue that I deal with, I have started to try to go for a nice ling walk. For me this is something that will take my mind off of that behavior for a while and if I am able to really focus then I can clear out that urge to binge totally. It is still something that I have work on consistently every day so I would not say that I have gotten there yet but I have hope that with practice and a commitment to the process, I will eventually overcome this need that I have to binge eat when I encounter stressful and emotional situations that I struggle to handle in a rational way.

  • penelope

    July 9th, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    No matter how many times I read things like this and see that this is exactly what I do, I have never been fully able to break the pattern of this behavior in myself.
    I see it, I understand it, I acknowledge it, and then something particularly stressful happens and I revert back to the same old behavior all over again.

  • Lynne

    July 9th, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    I have had an eating disorder most of my life. I think it is stress & comfort related as I turn to food (without even thinking about it) whenever I get emotional distressed or anxious etc. I have tried to break the cycle but without success and I am desperate for some help, as I am not getting any younger will be 60 in another 3 years! My main problem is at night, as I don’t sleep very well, so I get up and raid the cupboards and eat whatever I can find. Plus I also store/hide, sweets chocolate etc for when I need it and eat it in secret.

  • Jules

    July 10th, 2016 at 1:55 PM

    If I did not have such a supportive group of friends in my life then I don’t know where I would be. They are the glue that holds me together at times, that is for sure. I hope that one day I will be able to repay them for everything that they have done for me!

  • toni

    July 11th, 2016 at 2:30 PM

    I have been doing this for so long and had this type of behavior pattern established that it is almost a little scary to think that there are maybe some other things that I could do to help myself instead. It is a big change for me, when food has always been my go to for comfort, in good times and in bad.

  • Tara S.

    January 29th, 2019 at 11:07 AM

    Thought this might help

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