Updated: Mar 5
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.
It’s about the food but it’s really not about the food because when we make our way to food, we are also making our way away from something else, typically something we don’t want to sit with or an impulse towards food that is so strong we are unable to sit with it.
Unpleasant and difficult feelings are part of human experience and they can be challenging to sit with and experience in their entirety. We were never taught in school about the spectrum of emotions, how to sit with challenging feelings, let alone about emotional flexibility.
Emotional flexibility is a key skill in overcoming emotional eating.
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.
Therefore, the solution to emotional eating is found not in trying to compensate for it with calorie restriction or a new diet plan but to befriend what it is we are unwilling to sit with and build emotional flexibility skills.
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 getting stuffed down deeper inside us.
Like we’ve discussed thus 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 turning to food. 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.
Emotions like anger, shame, grief, loneliness, boredom, procrastination, anxiousness, or feelings of emptiness and lack can easily trigger emotional eating.
Emotional eating is also linked to positive emotions, for instance during celebrations, used as an reward for an accomplishment or by means of extending and amplifying positive emotions.
It's important to note that emotional eating isn't bad in and of itself, we all do it. However when it becomes our norm and it becomes overpowering that is when we need to examine the deeper layers to it.
Here is 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 hate this body or I have no willpower or self-control.
Example of coping thoughts: I create space for this difficult experience and doing so allow it to flow through me or I am learning to care for myself more deeply by being present to my inner world.
What you practice grows stronger. Instead of constantly being pulled by various emotional states that you feel powerless to, you create the space and awareness to decide if, and how, you want to engage with various emotional states. Overtime you have greater capacity to deal with the things life throws at you with greater resilience.
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.
Need Support? I'm Serena Benali, a Registered Dietitian and food relationship expert specialized in eating disorders and disordered eating. My mission is to help you reach your happy, healthy place with food and body.
I take my clients deep into discovering and releasing the root of their emotional eating. Schedule a complimentary discovery call now. I would love to guide you to a freer, healthier, happier relationship with food and body!