When we talk about emotional eating, it is not just the occasional extra scoop of ice cream when we’re having an off day. Emotional eaters are those who use food as the main coping mechanism to handle their stress. Emotional eating gets its name for a reason – it’s more than just a choice of saying, “I feel sad, so I’ll eat a cookie” – it’s a mental reaction. Any difficult emotion or situation automatically triggers an emotional eater’s brain to crave food.
For most emotional eaters, the shame felt after a binge is so intense, so unimaginably overwhelming, that it almost always leads to severe food restriction the following day. Until the next binge. And the binge-repent-repeat cycle (as coined by Dr. Michelle May) continues.
Just writing this is painful because I spent years stuck in this trap. A horrendous cycle of being “good” with my food, and then experiencing an emotion that was unpleasant and not knowing WTF to do with it, and then a head-first dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Most binge eaters binge in a trance-like state, and they suddenly snap back into reality and realize that they’ve eaten hundreds if not thousands of calories in less than 15 minutes. So once I would realize how far I’d gotten through the contents of my fridge, I’d say “Screw it, I’ll just finish off this ice cream and start over tomorrow.”
Emotional eating is more than just abnormal eating. Like all compulsive behaviors, it often reflects a serious inability to effectively process difficult emotions. There are far more potent ways to deal with our feelings, but sometimes we choose food.
Let me clarify one thing here: choosing food as your healing method of choice is NOT A BAD thing. To say that it’s bad just gives the diet-binge cycle more power, or at the very least adds shame to the behavior. No good or bad here, folks. Let’s just say it’s not the most effective for long-term relief.
Sometimes eating when we’re emotional is actually soothing. Ever heard of comfort food? It’s got that name for a reason. Certain foods make us feel safe, happy, or at home. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It only becomes problematic when we use food as our primary tool for coping, and I’ll explain why.
First, let’s get the science down. Let’s say you come home from a bad day at work feeling overwhelmed and on the brink of tears. The brain is in fight-or-flight mode, meaning it is registering your bad feelings as a threat to your wellbeing. Our brains are very primal; it doesn’t matter if a lion is chasing you or if you’re just stressed out – it can’t tell the difference between one threat and another. And the brain will do ANYTHING to get out of this threatened state.
At some point in life you ate something while experiencing a difficult emotion and your brain was rewarded. The pain went away -- even though it was only momentary. But, again, the brain only sensed one thing and that was relief. It doesn’t know that the pain wasn’t resolved long-term. So, now whenever you’re feeling “off” the brain automatically reacts by saying, “Eat the cookies. It worked that one time.”
This is important because most emotional eaters beat themselves up thinking about how “out of control” they are around food. In reality, this is a conditioned response happening in your brain. Not just you lacking willpower.
Most emotional eaters reach for the bag of chips when they feel a bad emotion coming on because they think, “Hey, if I can’t have my way with X situation/didn’t get that job promotion/got stood up on that date, then AT LEAST I can plow my way through this bag of chips.” We think of it as solace. And again, it does bring relief. But only temporarily – and that’s where the issue lies.
We usually think that once we reach the bottom of that bag of chips, we’ll feel better. Our problem will disappear. But in reality, we now have the shame/physical pain of the binge PLUS the original problem that brought us to the bottom of the bag in the first place. So no, we have not gotten rid of the problem - we’ve doubled it.
And then what? We’re so wracked with shame that we think we might as well eat everything else in the kitchen, too, since we’re doomed to feel this way forever and ever and ever. And besides, we’re gonna start over on the clean eating tomorrow morning.
So this behavior continues because we never learned to address that difficult emotion. When we find comfort from our problems in food and know that we have the ability to “start over” with our diet the following day, it fiercely reinforces the cycle. Moreover, we learn that we’ll avoid the bad feelings altogether because, once we binge, we’re too focused on our aching tummies to even care about the emotion. We’re too focused on hating ourselves for what we did to our “perfect diet”.
The difficult emotion may feel like it’s been stuffed down because of how much you ate, but in reality it’s there all the same. The key is to compassionately allow yourself to feel your feelings without wanting them to go away. Read my post here on meditations to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.
How do we recover from a binge? Check back next week for a post all about it!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What have your experiences with emotional eating been like? What types of emotions are you avoiding when you eat?