Turn Off the Scream of Emotional Eating

Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?

You are working on a big project for your job and it is coming together nicely. You are pleased with your progress and confident that your boss will be too. All of a sudden, you want to eat...perhaps something sweet, salty and crunchy.

The bakery down the street is only a couple of minutes away. You ate lunch less than an hour ago so you aren't really hungry. You can't stop thinking of eating your favorite baked items. Why?

You are on your way to school to meet with your child's teacher for a routine mid-year conference. Your child is excelling in school so you anticipate it will be a positive conference about your child's progress. No reason to be anxious, right? On the drive to go to school, you drive by your favorite fast food restaurant. You aren't hungry yet you are have this overwhelming urge to drive through for something they serve. You drive through for a "quick bite" and are a few minutes late for the conference. What happened?

You received good news and you want to eat; you feel anxious or worried and you want to eat; you are feeling down for no particular reason that you can identify and you want to eat. What is this voice that is similar to a recording playing over and over in your head? Sometimes this voice is screaming and so overwhelming for the urge to give in. This is head hunger or emotional eating.

What exactly is emotional eating? Emotional eating is when we eat in response to situations and feelings other than true physical hunger. Emotional eating is a way to alleviate or calm emotions such as worry, boredom, sadness, or stress. Emotional eating is the urge to change the way you're currently feeling to another more comfortable feeling. For example, you feel anxious and you don't know what to do with this emotion of anxiety. You turn to food to calm you and bring your anxiety down. Sometimes even positive emotions can cause the urge to emotional eating. The key to leaving the voice of emotional eating unanswered is to be aware. Be aware that emotional eating is triggered when you eat to feed a feeling, whether consciously or unconsciously, rather than feed a physical hunger. Imagine a signal light of Stop-Look-Listen!

STOP means that you need to take a pause. Even if you're on your way into the kitchen or drive-thru you need to Stop. Think it through. Fast forward to the feeling of guilt, shame and remorse you'll feel after you eat. You'll feel regret, shame, and self-depreciation. Awareness is in asking yourself if it is really worth it? Taking the pause to Stop is very important to silencing the voice of emotional overeating.

LOOK means that after you've completed Stop, Look inside yourself. What are you feeling? What do you need? Food isn't the answer. Look to use your emotional eating as a barometer into what's going on with you.

LISTEN means that you've identified what you're feeling or the bothersome situation. Once you've identified the trigger to the emotional eating, you can Listen and emotionally process the feeling or situation. There are distinct differences between emotional eating and physical hunger are:

* If you are craving a certain food, and only that food will do (such as cookies, chips, pizza, or a certain unhealthy food choice), that is emotional eating. If you eat because you are experiencing physical hunger, you are open to food choices to satisfy that hunger.

* Emotional eating hunger strikes suddenly while physical hunger occurs gradually. Emotional hunger happens instantaneously and wants to be satisfied NOW. Physical hunger does not demand to be satisfied immediately and can be delayed.

* Emotional eating is usually a process that is ongoing and prolonged. You can't seem to be satisfied and continue eating. The emotional eating is driven by feeling a sense of fullness inside you and is not driven by physical fullness. One of the behaviors associated with emotional eating is searching. You eat a food item and then find yourself searching for more or something else to feel satisfied and full. With physical hunger, you can stop eating when you feel a sense of satiety.

* Emotional eating causes you to feel guilt and shame afterwards. Negative self-talk usually results after emotional eating. Eating in response to physical hunger does not result in negative emotions or self talk. Eating to satisfy physical hunger is an act of self-care and nurturing, resulting in positive feelings from taking care of yourself.

Food can be a welcome distraction. If you are worried, i.e., about your presentation or a parent-teacher conference, food can take you away from your worry and distract you from your feelings. The distraction is only temporary and the situation or feelings return. In addition to the situation or feelings that you initially emotionally ate to cope, you now have added the negative feelings from the emotional eating episode.

When we have a headache or a physical discomfort, we take medication. Emotional eating is the same in that when we feel discomfort emotionally, we want to eat to stuff or bury the feeling or diminish the intensity. Food is for nourishment not for medicating! Emotional eating also serves to numb you and allow an emotional escape.

Here are some tips and what to do when you want to emotionally eat:

*Identify the urge to emotionally eat. Does it come on so rapidly that you haven't recognized it previously? Instill a moment of pause (use the Stop-Look-Listen strategy) when the desire occurs. This will allow you the opportunity to deal with the situation and feelings causing the drive to emotionally eat.

*What is triggering the desire to emotionally eat? Check in with yourself. What situation or feeling is most prominent at the time? Are you feeling worried, sad, overwhelmed, or angry?

*Distract yourself in a healthy, positive way rather than with food. Make a list of things you can do when you feel that urge to eat over your emotions. Call a friend, read a book, take a walk, watch a movie, listen to your favorite music, dance, go outside and change your environment from the house (and kitchen), indulge in a bubble bath, or take a nap.

*Feel the feelings. Feelings are temporary. They can be used as a gauge as to what is going on inside you that needs your attention. Feelings will pass when they are experienced and allowed to come and go.

Be proactive and develop strategies for conquering emotional eating. Write a checklist of activities you can engage rather than emotionally eat. Many times the strongest compulsion for food occurs when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable. Many of us turn to food for comfort when faced with a situation, uncomfortable feelings, or looking to carve out time just for ourselves. Nurture yourself in other ways than food. Food is a temporary quick fix while self-comforting acts are long lasting. If you have given in to emotional eating, learn from it and start again. Make a plan by incorporating a new strategy for the future. Play it again - review the situation and feelings that you emotionally ate over and substitute another way of coping. Focus on the positive, healthy changes you've made in your life.

Empower yourself to silence the voice of emotional eating. Make your goal to be stronger than the pull of emotional eating. Remember the answer to handling situations and feelings lies inside of you and not in a bag of cookies.

Cathy Wilson is a weight loss life coach. Cathy lost 147 pounds six years ago. Her passion is helping clients achieve their weight loss and life goals. Cathy works with clients to create a weight loss life plan that is customized to each client. Cathy is a member of the International Coaching Federation, International Association of Coaches, and Obesity Action Coalition.

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One Response to Turn Off the Scream of Emotional Eating

  • Meredith says:

    Thank you so much! I’m 14 years old and I used to binge-eat emotionally in the morning about an hour after breakfast and about every hour or so after lunch LOL. And I would have something to eat at about 11pm — nighttime is when my cravings burn the strongest for some reason LOL. It just happened each day and night up to the point when I couldn’t tell apart hunger and emotional cravings.
    My parents kept telling me to stop, but I just couldn’t help but take it personally and it just didn’t work no matter what they said. But after reading this whole thing, I really considered it! I can’t memorize this whole thing but when I really consider what else I could do besides eat I get more distracted than I used to, and now I know the difference between hunger and emotional cravings and this is really working! I am trying to eat less sugar and salt, have no snacks in between meals during the day and at night, and for the first time, it’s really working! Thanks!

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