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Emotional Eating and How to Break the Cycle

Eating out of frustration is a very common thing. Whenever we are feeling down, frustrated or simply empty inside, our tendency is to seek for something to soothe us and calm us down. We could even say that, in a way, food has become one of the most easily available ‘drug’ out there.

Recent studies suggest that foods with substances such as sugars, sweeteners, salt, and fats can prompt similar addictive processes as drugs such as nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and opioids. This happens due to its similar impact on our brain reward system and the release of Dopamine in the blood. [1]

So, when we are frustrated or feeling emotionally unstable, we tend to reach for highly rewarding foods without thinking much about its consequences, we just want to feel better. This can lead to a cycle of excess eating and associated issues, like weight gain and self blame.

Emotional hunger vs. true hunger

The regulation of food intake involves a close interrelationship between nutritional needs and monitor available energy within the blood and fat stores, as well as factors that are unrelated to nutritional or energy requirements, which are regulated by neurotransmitters such as Dopamine. [1]

The trick here is to know which one is dominant at any given time and they might even be present simultaneously at times. Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.

According to the Mayo Clinic [2], there are several differences that might help clue you in to what you’re experiencing.

Physical hunger Emotional hunger
It develops slowly over time. It comes about suddenly or abruptly.
You desire a variety of food groups. You crave only certain foods.
You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating. You may binge on food and not feel a sensation of fullness.
You have no negative feelings about eating. You feel guilt or shame about eating.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that everyone is very unique so there is not a rule that determines whether you are eating out of emotions or not. It is very important to tune into your own uniqueness and understanding your own body cues at any given time.

What to do about it?

In order to break the cycle of emotional eating, you have to get to the roots of what is causing you to behave this way. As seen previously, emotional eating is a strategy to cope with a feeling that feels like ‘too much’ and we are unwilling to feel it or stay with it. So, finding a way to make space for that triggered emotion is crucial in breaking the cycle.

Of course it isn’t that easy at times. If it was, we wouldn’t be turning towards food to start with! So having a gentle and curious approach to what’s happening and what could be causing it is crucial.

Here are 5 useful steps that might support you with breaking the cycle of Emotional Eating:

1)Stop and take a deep breath

Yes! This can certainly be the hardest part in the beginning but once you can take this first step, you may be surprised with can unfold next. When you recognise that you are eating to soothe yourself,  you can step back and have a better perspective on what’s happening right now. This will be the first step in being able to break the cycle.

2) Accept and Be true to yourself

Accepting here doesn’t mean not doing anything about it. Rather it means accepting the reality of the situation. Accept and be true to the fact that:

  1. You are eating out of frustration;
  2. There’s something driving you to behave this way and it might be due to some strong emotions you are not willing (or not able to) stay with right now.

This might, in fact, bring more clarity on what’s really going on and what lead you to this place, what triggered you to start with and now you have more space to work with what’s here.

3) Recognise the underlying emotion

Emotional eating has a cause and it is usually related to a present feeling or emotion in which we unwilling to feel or to be with. Emotions live in our body [3], therefore connecting to our current bodily experience will lead us to the root, underlying emotion that is driving us to behave this way.

4) Be kind and non-judgemental

When being with strong emotions, it is important to maintain a kind, understanding and compassionate presence during the whole process. To do this, it is helpful to understand that whatever emotion we are having to deal with right now, it is not our fault or is it not who we are. It is only something that is happening to us due to causes and conditions and it will pass!

Having a compassionate and kind witness during the process will allow the emotion to have a voice and space to be processed and integrated, just like a strong wave dissipating back into the ocean. The brain researcher, Jill Bolte Taylor suggests that each emotion last an average of 90 seconds in our bodymind [4]. That is only true if we don’t attach out thoughts and judgements onto it. Pema Chödrön describes this feeling as “the hook” as our thoughts hook, line and sink us.

5) Keep a journal

It is helpful to keep a journal of the process you have just been through. This might bring clarity on the causes of the emotional eating and which sort of feelings or mind states are related to it. Getting to know yourself will bring a better understanding on why you do what you do and perhaps more self-compassion which will naturally lead you to stay in the ‘hook’ for shorter periods of time and possibly leading you to complete dissolution of that particular emotion and triggers associated with them.

References:

[1]  Food reward system: current perspectives and future research needs 2015<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4477694/>

[2] Feeding your feelings, 2014  https://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/feeding-your-feelings

[3] Where Your Body ‘Feels’ Emotions Revealed In New Study 2015 <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2014/01/03/body-emotions-finnish-study-video_n_4532617.html>

[4] Jill Bolte Taylor,  My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey  – May 26, 2009

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