By Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT Set the best intention, overeat, shame and guilt yourself, repeat. Many of us find ourselves routinely overeating at meals, snacking mindlessly, or...
By Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT
Set the best intention, overeat, shame and guilt yourself, repeat. Many of us find ourselves routinely overeating at meals, snacking mindlessly, or bingeing regularly. We all enjoy eating and, on occasion, we’ll eat when we’re not hungry or we’ll overeat just because the food is incredibly tasty, or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. An afternoon out with a good friend is certainly more enjoyable with coffee and a pastry. And what would a good movie be without a bag of popcorn? There’s nothing wrong with occasionally using food to enhance enjoyment and celebrate life. The problem arises when we use food in this way so often that our health is at risk.
The truth is, if you regularly eat when you’re not hungry, choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat beyond fullness, something is out of balance somewhere. Sure, you love food and enjoy eating. Perhaps you also have a stressful schedule, and there’s an abundance of addictive, processed food around you all day. But the bulk of your overeating occurs not just because you love to eat or because you’re stressed out. It’s not because you’re lazy and undisciplined, lack willpower, have bad genes or an addictive personality.
Recent advances in brain science have uncovered the crucial role that our early social and emotional environment play in the development of imbalanced eating patterns. When we do not receive consistent and sufficient emotional nurturance during our early years, we are at greater risk of seeking it from external sources such as food. Despite logical arguments, we have difficulty modifying our behavior because we are under the influence of an emotionally dominant part of the brain.
Your overeating or imbalanced eating may have an emotional component to it. A craving, or an exaggerated desire to eat in the absence of true physiological hunger cues, represents an emotional appetite. And emotional hunger often feels the same as physical hunger.
As an emotional eater, you may use food:
- To dull or tranquilize emotions that are difficult to cope with, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, shame, guilt and even happiness and joy;
- To calm yourself when you are experiencing unpleasant bodily sensations such as nervousness, agitation or muscle tension;
- To soothe and comfort yourself;
- For pleasure, escape, fulfillment, and excitement;
- To handle stress;
- To silence negative, critical, self-defeating thoughts and quiet your mind;
- To manage overwhelm;
- To distract yourself from low-motivation states like boredom, lethargy and apathy;
- To procrastinate;
- Because your life lacks purpose, meaning, passion, and inspiration;
- Because you feel so much regret regarding your life;
- Because you feel deprived in life and want to have no limits;
- To try to fill up an inner emptiness;
- To reward or punish yourself;
- To rebel against someone or something;
- To ward off sexual attention and
- To feel safe.
SIDEBAR – “Just as a wholesome meal nourishes the body, spirituality nourishes the soul.”
No doubt, your emotional eating has helped you cope daily with emotional states like anxiety and depression, general stress and self-defeating thoughts. But it isn’t a very effective long-term strategy for meeting your needs and desires. Not only does it lead to poor health and weight gain, but it also can never be a substitute for learned skills. And you won’t learn more effective self-care skills by going on another diet!
Focusing on external solutions, such as the latest diet or exercise regimen, is like trying to solve the problem of a stalled train by giving it a new coat of paint and polishing its wheels. No matter how much paint or polish we apply, the train will remain stuck. We need to access the engine that drives the train and accurately diagnose the problem. It’s our inner world of emotions, sensations, needs and thoughts that drive our behavior. In order to understand and resolve the behavior of emotional eating, we have to tune in to and explore our inner world.
Emotional eating highlights the fact that you’re missing important self-care skills that are generally learned in childhood. You may be lacking the ability to connect to and be mindful of your internal world—to consistently regulate uncomfortable emotional and bodily states, calm and soothe yourself, and address your unmet needs. You may find it difficult to reframe self-defeating thoughts and self-belief distortions and to practice self-acceptance and self-love. Perhaps you never learned how to effectively grieve losses and disappointments, remind yourself of your strengths and resources, and old hope for the future. Without these skills, regulating your behaviors and setting effective limits for yourself can feel like a daunting task.
The good news is that it’s never too late to learn to nurture yourself with the loving kindness and self-compassion you crave, rewire your brain for optimal emotional health, and handle stressors with more ease.
Establish the Habit of Self Connection
You can address your emotional eating by establishing a regular practice of checking in with yourself. When you want to grab food, try this three-step process first:
Step 1: Ask yourself “What am I feeling in this moment?”
Perhaps you just had an argument with your spouse and now all you can think about is ice cream. Pull away from the kitchen and grab pen and paper. Sit upright and ground yourself—feel your rear in the seat and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Jot down what you’re feeling. Feelings include both emotions and bodily sensations. Research shows that just the act of writing down your feelings can help to regulate your nervous system and interrupt wayward behaviors.
You write that you’re feeling angry, frustrated, hurt, drained, lonely and sad. You notice that your head hurts, your shoulders are tense and your stomach is in a knot. Ask the noisy, thought generating part of your brain to be quiet for a moment. Notice your breathing. Breathe in relaxation; breath out tension. Try placing one hand on your heart and one hand on an area of tension. You’re beginning to calm down.
Step 2: Ask yourself “What do I need in this situation?”
See if you can identify a need that you can meet yourself, rather than one that involves someone else changing. For example, rather than writing that you need your husband to be less reactive, you might write that you need peace and harmony in your relationship. Maybe you need hope that things can improve.
It may take some flexibility and creativity to meet your needs. It’s often easier to meet physical needs than emotional needs. The more you let go of rigid expectations, the more you’ll open yourself up to finding a satisfying solution.
Step 3: Access an inner supportive voice—the mature, wise, kind, and loving part of you—and reassure yourself that your feelings are valid and your needs can be met.
Using this voice, jot down a few validating, hopeful statements, such as: “It makes sense to feel hurt and angry when someone yells at you. The truth is, you both prefer peace and harmony. Let’s revisit this discussion on the weekend when we’re both more relaxed.”
Catch and Reframe Self-Defeating Thoughts
While you’re inside, see if you can catch any negative, critical, doubting, pessimistic thoughts. Self-defeating thoughts do a lot of damage, and they can fuel emotional eating. For each negative thought you identify, see if you can think of a more positive, energizing or calming replacement thought—or at the very least, a more neutral thought.
“I’ve gained back a few pounds—I’ll never lose this weight,” could be reframed into, “I’ve gained back a few pounds—I’ve lost weight before, and I’m sure I can do it again.” “I just can’t handle all this stress,” could be reframed into, “As I take a deep breath, I realize that I can pace myself through this challenging time.” My hair looks like crap,” can be reframed into a more neutral thought–“My new hair color matches my skin nicely.” Positive, self-and-life-affirming thoughts lead to hope and more adaptive behaviors. And they can quickly curb emotional eating.
Practice Soul Care
Your overeating, or imbalanced eating may also represent a “call from your soul,” a sort of spiritual hunger informing you that something is out of balance. Most of us mere mortals fall prey to the notion that an enduring sense of happiness, peace, safety, and security can be found in conditions, things, and beings. Whether we’re hoping to lose weight, land that dream job, or meet the right partner, it’s easy to get caught up in our material lives and lose sight or our spiritual needs.
Often, it’s only when we reach our goals that we discover their achievement brings little permanent satisfaction. We may begin to wonder if there is more to life than pursuing endless earthly desires.
The spiritual component of well-being involves a search for meaning, serenity and joy that goes beyond day-to-day concerns. Just as a wholesome meal nourishes the body, spirituality nourishes the soul. We all desire a life filled with purpose and passion, a life rich in soul-nourishing connections to family, friends, community and nature.
If you’re feeling spiritually depleted, you may feel disconnected from the deeper reserves of joy, passion, and contentment within or from your higher self or a higher power. You may feel disconnected from your calling or sense of purpose in life. And there’s a good chance this disconnection is fueling your overeating. Some soul care practices may assist you in addressing this disconnection and filling up your spiritual reserves.
Quiet Your Mind
Even though you may not be able to reduce the multitude of tasks you must accomplish in a day or all the roles you play, you can minimize their negative effect by consciously withdrawing from your busy schedule to quiet your mind. A popular technique is to focus your complete attention on counting your breaths. As you inhale deeply, count the number one to yourself silently and then exhale deeply. Repeat three times, counting up to the number four, focusing solely on inhaling, exhaling and counting. As you inhale, imagine yourself breathing in light, love, and calm. Breath out and exhale stress, negativity, and worry. Your body and mind are beginning to relax.
Practice Letting Go
Most of us believe if we apply enough effort, we can control our lives. If we have the talent, ability, or good fortune to manifest many of our desires, we become, without realizing it, invested in this illusion. We dream big, set goals and become emotionally attached to power, beauty, money, prestige, possessions, perfection, people, and even the idea that things will always go our way.
Letting go is not necessarily about giving up on your goals. It’s about finding balance. Make a list of all the attachments in your life that create imbalance. Don’t forget to include states of being, such as the need to be right or well-liked; outcomes, such as quick payoffs, and the past, like grudges and regrets.
Pick one attachment and set an intention to work on it. Commit to one small change you can make. Explore your emotions regarding letting go. What do you fear will happen if you let go? What will you lose or give up? What will you gain?
Fill Up on Nourishing Connections
Are loneliness and isolation factors in your overeating? If so, you can attract others who are nourishing by starting small and focusing on increasing your experience of connection. Small at the check-out clerk or pet a friendly dog and say hello to its guardian. Connections that involve giving or helping others elicit positive physiological sensations called “the helper’s high.” These feelings are motivating and can push you past the withdrawal associated with loneliness.
Nourishing relationships provide a place to feel safe, seen, heard, accepted, understood, and loved. Get clear on the qualities or traits you are looking for in friends or partners. Envision the type of person you want to attract and write your vision in a journal. Be proactive when socializing and make contact with people who have the traits you desire Don’t just take those who take you.
Fill Your Life with Purpose and Meaning
Nothing feels better than waking up and looking forward to the day. We feel a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction because our lives have purpose and feel meaningful. And it’s even better if we feel inspired and passionate about what we’re doing. We become imbalanced when we don’t have enough meaningful activities in our lives, and this can lead to eating in an attempt to fill up the emptiness.
If your life feels devoid of significance right now, try not to lose hope or faith. It will take some time to build more purpose and meaning but doing so is not impossible. Let your heart guide you in finding more stimulating or joy-filled activities. Make a list of potential activities, including those that contribute to the well-being of others. Helping others can lift you out of a seemingly purposeless existence.
The moment when the urge to use food is strong is an opportunity to build new self-care skills and soul-care practices. Every time you do so, you’re “wiring-in” new neural patterns, making it easier to calm and nurture yourself and set effective limits. You’ve been looking outside yourself for the loving-kindness and nurturance you crave; you’re beginning to discover that your true source lies within.
Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT is a psychotherapist and life coach, and the bestselling author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food is Comfort. Julie is an inspirational speaker and for the past 3 decades, she has been helping overeaters and imbalanced eaters heal their relationships with themselves, their bodies and food, stop dieting, lose excess weight and keep it off. Julie is the founder and director of The Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program, an alternative to dieting that addresses the true causes of overeating and weight gain: emotional and spiritual hunger and body imbalance. Julie has been a featured expert on numerous TV and radio shows and podcasts, and she loves to wake people up about their phenomenal mind, body and spirit signals and help them learn to nurture themselves mindfully without turning to food. Please visit www.overeatingrecovery.com.