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Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating

Turning to food to mask, bury, or “fix” our feelings is a common impulse that can evolve into an unhealthy habit. Learn strategies to break free from finding refuge in comfort foods. by Amanda Loudin When she was in college, Rebecca M. would hole up in her bedroom in her off-campus apartment late at night,…
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Turning to food to mask, bury, or “fix” our feelings is a common impulse that can evolve into an unhealthy habit. Learn strategies to break free from finding refuge in comfort foods.

emotional eating stress anxiety depression management

by Amanda Loudin

When she was in college, Rebecca M. would hole up in her bedroom in her off-campus apartment late at night, somewhere she could be alone. Then she would eat an entire large pizza, undisturbed, in one sitting. Though she might not have been fully aware of it, Rebecca was attempting to bury painful feelings and buffer her stress—even if only for the moment. After bingeing, she would feel ashamed and beat herself up over it. Rinse, repeat.

Now in her late 30s, and with talk therapy and enhanced coping skills at her disposal, Rebecca admits that her relationship with food has been and likely will continue to be a long-term challenge.

For
many people, emotional eating looks just like this. It’s a vicious cycle of
feeling pain, sadness, or anger; turning to overindulgence in food for comfort;
then a round of shame and guilt.

It can be a tough pattern to alter.

“People who cope with their emotions through food will often berate themselves after the fact, feeling like they are failing at their goals,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist. “This leads to more sadness and then back to eating to provide solace.”

Most
of us will struggle with food in some capacity or another during our lifetime. We
live in a culture obsessed with appearance and rules surrounding our eating
habits. At some point, we’re all tempted to overeat, diet, or indulge in unhealthy
treats.

“We
have a complicated relationship with food in our society,” says Brooklyn-based
counselor Rachel Gersten, LMHC, CHC.

“If
we have a rough day, we might reach for a cheeseburger and fries,” she says.
“These are minor ways to temporarily lift our mood.”

But
emotional eating goes beyond these sporadic behaviors. At its core, it is a
method for masking pain.

Disordered Eating Cycles & Emotional Thought Spirals

“When you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, eating can be a quick fix for a big problem,” Gersten explains.

In
the end, though, it doesn’t truly resolve the source of our troubles.

“If
this is the only approach you use to feel better,” she says, “you’re not
addressing the bigger issues.”

Clinical therapist Kyla Fox, MSW, RSW, of Toronto, agrees. “Generally, we cope this way when our feelings seem impossible to address,” she says. “We protect ourselves from feeling pain by eating to numb ourselves.”

The
result is that we push our feelings down for the time being, but we don’t do
anything meaningful to resolve them.

“Using
food for comfort falls into the spectrum of disordered eating,” says Fox. “It’s
a harmful behavior, but people who cope this way are often highly functional
and don’t necessarily present as obese
or emaciated, so there’s little awareness they have an issue.”

For 39-year-old teacher and writer Angie E., emotional eating is often a subconscious process. She wasn’t always aware of the problem.

Angie, of Portland, Oregon, lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. In an effort to make herself feel better, she gravitates toward baked goods and sweets.

“I
will find that suddenly I want cookies or bread, or other sugary treats,” she
says. “It’s not a binge, but definitely an uptick. There’s a biological
connection to sugar giving us a lift, and I think that’s why I crave those
foods.”

Angie lives with physical health concerns that are impacted by what she eats, so she often feels upset with herself after she indulges her cravings.

“I
will start in with negative self-talk,” she explains. “It becomes a loop.”

To change her behaviors, Angie has worked with a therapist and educated herself on the emotional-eating cycle. With stronger self-awareness, she now recognizes when she is on the cusp of reaching for snacks in times of distress.

“I’m
more conscious about it. I’ve gotten to a level of self-acceptance that keeps
me from spiraling,” she says, reflecting on her progress. “I realize that this
is how I naturally want to cope, and I no longer berate myself for that or
become depressed if I eat foods I that crave but aren’t as beneficial to my
physical health.”

Recognizing & Respecting Stress, Anxiety, & Depression

“Often, food is the surface-most expression of emotional difficulty,” says Glenn Francis, PsyD, a San Rafael, California–based psychotherapist who often works with clients seeking to manage or recover from emotional eating disorders.

“I
help people identify what they are struggling with,” he says, “and what they
are using food to try to soothe or change or bury within themselves—and food
cannot do this. It’s food, not feelings!”

Francis
acknowledges that one aspect of emotional eating that makes it difficult to
manage is that food is not something we can abandon.

He
points out that if we were abusing alcohol or drugs, we could work to stop
using them entirely. “But we have to eat,” he says, “so if food is our drug of
choice, it can be quite challenging to alter our behaviors with it.”

The
first step to getting a handle on our emotional eating is to recognize the
impulse.

But
the next step is the key: respect
the impulse.

“If
we can recognize how powerful the urge is and not trivialize it, we’re less
likely to beat ourselves up over it,” he explains.

From
there, we can move on to address our attitude toward ourselves: “I want
patients to have better insight into what’s going on emotionally,” he says, “and
cultivate self-compassion.”

This
means getting away from the cycle of guilt that usually follows overindulgence.

“Emotional
eating is a warning sign that there’s more going on,” Francis explains. “It’s
not that something is wrong with you but that you need to gradually become more
conscious of those tendencies.”

Self-Awareness Is Key to Recovery from Emotional Eating

Learning to recognize her compulsion to self-soothe
by eating has been a big part of Barbara’s* journey. A professor in Texas who lives with
both depression and anxiety, Barbara realized there was a pattern to her behavior.
After important life events—like her children’s graduations or relocations—depression
would rear up, and she would attempt to alleviate it by binge eating. But this
led only to more sadness and disappointment.

“Food
can be such a powerful way to make yourself feel better,” she says.

That
immediate benefit, though, is short-lived: “But then it also becomes the enemy—when
you don’t eat healthfully or it leads to weight gain, and you can’t let go of
guilt and simply eat for pleasure.”

With
the assistance of a psychiatrist, Barbara started to face the feelings she had
been trying to escape. She also sought alternative coping strategies.

“Much
of it is being mindful,” she says, “paying attention when the urge to comfort
hits.”

Gersten,
the counselor from Brooklyn, emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and
self-reflection at that time.

“Give
yourself permission to use food in the moment if you must, but ask yourself,
‘How about a piece of cake,’” she suggests, “‘instead of the whole cake?’”

That pause to self-reflect is powerful. Two studies published in the journal Mindfulness in 2013 and 2019 demonstrate that by practicing mindfulness and eating awareness, we can significantly improve both our emotional control and our relationship with food.

Barbara’s progress shows how that awareness
enhances self-control: “Now,” she says, “I might allow myself to have a bite,
and then move on. I’ll walk, journal, or meditate instead of bingeing.”

Once we recognize that we feel better when we consume a healthier
amount of food, we can begin working toward other options for managing the pain
that we had been trying to mask by overeating, Gersten says.

Just
as we seek moderation in consumption, we must also be realistic in our
expectations. Both Gersten and Francis, who works with clients to address the
emotional eating cycle, agree that overcoming the urge to alleviate emotional
distress by bingeing can be a long, slow process.

“It’s
often two steps forward and one step back,” says Gersten. “But learning to
recognize the barriers to success when they happen and developing problem-solving
skills will help you manage better next time.”

Breaking Free from the Impulse to Mask Emotions with Food

Rebecca, whose struggles with emotional eating were prominent in her college days, has since founded the Better Because Project, a website dedicated to sharing stories about post-traumatic growth.

Her overall health and relationship with food started to improve when she found the right treatment center for her—one where she felt better recognized as a whole person and less like a collection of mental health diagnoses. With that support and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Rebecca has made significant progress.

“DBT skills have been instrumental to leading
an emotionally regulated life,” she says. “I also added a food coach and
acupuncture.”

Rebecca’s food coach helps her adjust what she eats, to manage chronic health concerns; and acupuncture assists her with emotion and body regulation.

Again,
mindfulness plays a part in managing this ongoing challenge: “Whenever I start
craving something, I ask myself, ‘Am I hungry, or am I feeding my emotions?’ ‘What
does my body need?’”

For
her part, Barbara, too, says the impulse to mask feelings with food will likely
stay with her for good.

“I’ve
reached a level of self-acceptance, however, so I don’t spiral as far when I
find myself struggling,” she says. She acknowledges that emotional eating
remains a deep-rooted tendency,
but, she says, “it won’t fuel further depression.”

Francis,
the California-based therapist, wants everyone to know that there is hope for a
full recovery.

“I recognize that it can be a lifelong challenge,” he says. “But what if we look at this through a deeper lens? If the warning bell rings, it invites us to expand, look deeper, and realize our potential.” When we reach that place, we will have a more enjoyable, peaceful relationship with food—one that we control, and not the other way around.

*Barbara is not her real name.

• • • • •

Interrupting the Cycle of Emotional Eating

Regaining control over the compulsion to use food
for relief can be tough, but these tried-and-true strategies can help. Here’s
how we can overcome our impulse to eat when feeling stressed or low:

Practice Mindfulness

Learning to tune into and acknowledge our emotional
urges and physical needs can make a big difference. When we recognize the
knee-jerk reaction of opening the fridge after facing emotional upset, we
benefit from pausing for a few seconds to think about what we are doing.

Are we truly hungry? Or are we craving something that a snack cannot really
provide?

If we’re looking
to bury our feelings in
that moment, we should turn instead to our favorite stress-relieving activities—such
as taking a walk, calling a friend, or journaling.

Know Your Triggers

For many of us, emotional eating is predictable.
“I know my pattern,” says Barbara, of Texas. “If there’s a big event on my
calendar, I’m going to feel letdown afterward and want food for comfort. I
anticipate that and plan for other coping strategies.”

Ditch the Guilt

When trying to break this cycle, remember that it’s likely to be an ongoing challenge. Everybody slips up now and then. And when you do, don’t beat yourself up, says Rachel Gersten, LMHC, and cofounder of Viva Wellness. “If you hit a point where you know a doughnut is going to make you feel better, give yourself permission to have it, and release the guilt,” she says. “Then work toward the alternatives that you know will help.”

* * * * *

Amanda Loudin is an award-winning journalist who covers health and wellness for publications like the Washington Post, NBC, Outside and many others. You can find her on Twitter at @misszippy1 or on her website, amanda-loudin.com.

Published as “Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating,” Spring/Summer 2020

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