Have 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.
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