Emotional eating is a tricky topic. Whenever I talk to the people about the sort of work that I do and mention emotional eating, people will readily identify with this aspect. ‘Yeah, I definitely think I do that, is that bad?’
The fact is, we are all emotional eaters to some extent or another. We know that eating (or not eating for that matter) is intricately related to how we think and feel. Take a situation when you might have gone food shopping when you were very hungry. Now compare this to a similar situation, but you are feeling very full. You’ll probably have made very different decisions. Even if you haven’t, you’ll certainly think and feel differently about what you are putting into your basket. From very early on, the food we eat becomes entangled in a web of developmental experiences that relate to how well we emotionally attach to others (or not), how well and how we learn to regulate our emotions, and how we relate a range of emotional experiences with those of hunger and satiety.
The connection is even prominent in our day to day vocabulary. We can ‘swallow our pride’, we can literally become ‘fed-up’ with someone, or something. How many sitcoms and movies have you seen where the protagonist is encouraged by (usually her) friends to crack out a (usually large) tub of ice cream to help regulate, avoid or manage their emotionally turbulent roller coaster of a story line? Despite its prominence, it would be foolhardy to assume that emotional eating is necessarily maladaptive, or symptomatic of an underlying issue.
Is emotional eating, comfort eating?
Emotional eating is also often oversimplified. People tend to jump to the conclusion that we eat emotionally, because we are seeking comfort. In fact, there are multiple potential explanations for the cause of emotional eating in each of our lives. Yes, some people do eat to regulate emotions, others might do so to avoid, or block them. People sometimes eat to communicate emotions to themselves or others or in response to trauma or stress. Cognitive models of emotional eating explain some patterns as a result of certain schemas. Does the individual feel entitled, abandoned or deprived?
Just as there is no single cause to an eating disorder, there is no single model that would seem to fully explain the cause of emotional eating in a given individual. It is highly context specific and as ever, there is no easy answer.
What do we do about emotional eating?
If emotional eating is problematic for an individual, it is first useful to understand if there are any deficits or difficulties in the process of of managing emotions for an individual.
We might want to look at how well someone can recognise their emotions. Some people have become so disconnected from certain feelings that they can no longer easily identify them. This can be known as Alexithymia -basically an inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. In other situations, people are not disconnected, but cannot place a given emotion. Feeling fat for example, can often be the expression of another unrecognised feeling or emotion. A lot of people feel fat from time to time. A good question to ask yourself in this situation is “I wonder what else I might be feeling?”
Having recognised the emotion(s), it is then a case of learning to tolerate them. If we are to disconnect any sense of maladaptive relationship between a given emotion and eating behaviour, the individual needs to be able to ride the initial impulse of escaping, avoiding or quietening that emotion.
This can be helped through the process of validation. Emotions are a part of all of us. They are used to communicate or pass on information within ourselves, and between ourselves and our environment. Some of us need to learn that It is not ‘right or wrong’ to feel anything. Guilt is a good example. Have you ever asked yourself why do we ‘feel guilty’? One function is that it helps regulate social boundaries. We might feel guilty after minor (and major) indiscretions. For example, I still feel a pang of guilt when I think back to the actions of my 14-year old self. I still vividly remember walking into my brother’s room, who was diligently working away on an essay. In a misplaced bid for attention, I flicked the off button on his PC - cue utter chaos. In the aftermath, while I may have denied it at the time, I didn’t feel great about it. The behaviour or action may have been ill-advised, but the emotional response was appropriate. If I had somehow learned at an early age that both my actions AND my emotional response to those actions as inappropriate, I might have developed other ways of managing that emotion. Some people also then learn to associate what they consider to be ‘unacceptable’ emotions to core self beliefs. E.g. I shouldn’t be feeling this, therefore I’m flawed/I'm a bad person. We must all learn that most emotions are an entirely natural and necessary response to our behaviours and environment.
Finally, we come to management. We can all learn to develop a set of skills to manage our emotions. Whether we need to improve our communication skills, assertiveness or ability to soothe ourselves without food, we still cannot begin the process building emotional resilience without first learning to recognise, tolerate and validate the emotions we feel. It is is a complex process, and takes time, so for now, I’ll leave it there.
In another post, I’ll cover some of the strategies that might be useful to deploy throughout this process. If you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow me/tweet me (@acbcoaching). As every, any shares to people you might think would benefit from reading this post would be much appreciated.