Updated: Oct 11
Written by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian. Published May 9, 2021 Updated July 17, 2023
In the journey to stop emotional eating, understanding the true triggers goes beyond the emotions themselves. It's about how we cope with and navigate those emotions.
In this blog post, we uncover the key to stopping emotional eating by delving into emotional flexibility. Because when it comes to emotional eating, it isn’t the emotion itself that is the trigger for emotional eating but rather, how the emotion is dealt with.
While emotional eating appears centered around food, its roots lie deeper in our emotional landscape. It serves as a coping mechanism to distract ourselves from uncomfortable or unwanted emotions.
The intense impulses or challenging feelings we experience often drive us towards food, offering temporary relief from feeling those emotions. However, acknowledging and fully experiencing the entire range of human emotions is vital for personal growth.
The key to overcoming emotional eating: Emotional flexibility
The key to successfully overcoming emotional eating lies in developing emotional flexibility. By cultivating the ability to navigate and respond to a wide range of emotions, we can break free from the cycle of using food as a coping mechanism.
Emotional flexibility empowers us to sit with and tolerate uncomfortable feelings, allowing us to explore healthier ways of addressing and managing our emotions. Through this journey of self-discovery and growth, we can develop a more balanced and harmonious relationship with food, finding true emotional freedom.
For more resources and guidance on overcoming emotional eating, don't forget to explore our blog featuring the best emotional eating books, offering valuable insights and strategies to support your journey towards food freedom.
What is emotional flexibility
Emotional flexibility refers to the ability to adapt and respond to different emotions in a balanced and healthy manner. It involves being open to experiencing a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative, without relying on food or other unhealthy coping mechanisms to numb or suppress them. Instead, individuals with emotional flexibility are able to acknowledge, understand, and regulate their emotions effectively, finding alternative ways to cope with difficult feelings and maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Emotional flexibility has 3 parts to it:
The ability to sit with and stay in contact with the present moment,
While being aware of thoughts and emotions without trying to change or be controlled by them
Depending on the situation, choosing one’s behaviour based on the situation and personal values.
The solution to emotional eating lies not in attempting to compensate for it through calorie restriction or adopting a new diet plan, but rather in embracing and developing emotional flexibility skills. By befriending the emotions that we are hesitant to confront and nurturing our ability to adapt to them, we can effectively overcome emotional eating and establish a healthier relationship with food. It's about learning to navigate our emotions with flexibility and resilience, rather than relying on food as a coping mechanism.
Building emotional flexibility takes practice and like any repeated behaviour, what you practice grows stronger. As you practice, your capacity to hold unpleasant feelings grows and as a result of this, these emotions begin to come with less intensity and less frequency because they get to be released when we make space for them, instead of suppressing them deep inside us.
Like we’ve discussed so far, turning away from, distracting or stuffing emotions to temporarily silence or suppress them turns down our capacity to sit with them and reinforces the habit of emotional eating. This can create a neural pathway and habit. Overtime, even if we don’t experience the emotion we may find ourselves making our way to food for some reason we just can't seem to piece together.
Emotional eating can be triggered by various emotions, including anger, shame, grief, loneliness, boredom, procrastination, anxiousness, feelings of emptiness and lack or even food guilt. Emotional eating is also linked to positive emotions that can contribute to emotional eating. For instance during celebrations, food can be used as a reward for an accomplishment or by means of extending and amplifying positive emotions and the experience.
It's important to recognize that emotional eating is a common behavior and not inherently bad. However, when it becomes overpowering. leads us to have an unhealthy relationship with food and affects our well-being, it's crucial to delve deeper into its underlying causes.
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How to build emotional flexibility to stop emotional eating
Here is our three-step process how you can begin to build emotional flexibility and tolerate unpleasant feelings and emotions so that you can overcome emotional eating - for good.
Think of your emotions as a lake, rather than being in the lake and fully submerged by your emotions, sit beside the lake and allow your emotions to be there without fully consuming you. When we don’t suppress or over-identify with our emotions they lose their power to control us.
Practice creating the space to allow yourself to experience a difficult feeling. You can start by acknowledging the emotion and labeling it. For example: this is boredom or this is anxiousness.
See if there is any thoughts that intensifying the emotions. If so, acknowledge them and use coping thoughts (self-talk that calms the emotion).
Example of intensifying thoughts:
I have no willpower or self-control.
I'll never change.
Example of coping thoughts:
This too shall pass.
I create space for this difficult experience and doing so allow it to flow through me.
I am learning to care for myself more deeply by being present to my inner world.
Be sure to checkout our blog on healthy eating affirmations, where you'll discover empowering and positive statements to cultivate a nourishing mindset and support your overall well-being.
What you practice grows stronger. Instead of constantly being pulled by various emotional states that you feel powerless to, create the space and awareness to decide if, and how, you want to engage with various emotional states. Overtime you will have greater capacity to deal with the things life throws at you with more resilience and ease.
Emotions can feel overwhelming but we're meant to feel the spectrum of emotions throughout life. Being present with your emotions can help you reset your relationship with food. When you allow your emotions to sit instead of turning to food you'll find that they come with less intensity and less frequency over time.
Key takeaways: Emotional Eating - the key to stopping
The key to stopping emotional eating is to develop emotional flexibility, which involves acknowledging and regulating emotions without relying on food as a coping mechanism. Building emotional flexibility takes practice, and it allows us to sit with and release uncomfortable feelings, leading to a reduction in emotional eating triggers.
By nurturing emotional flexibility, we can establish a healthier relationship with food and overcome the cycle of emotional eating. Remember, emotions are a normal part of life, and by embracing them with resilience and adaptability, we can find true emotional freedom and regain control over our eating habits.
Need support for emotional eating?
If you're seeking support on your journey to overcome emotional eating, our team of experienced dietitians is here to help. With our expertise and compassionate guidance, we can provide you with the support and tools you need to develop a healthier relationship with food and manage your emotions effectively.