Emotional eating is a form of dissociation. If you aren’t familiar with the term dissociation, it is the ability for the brain to separate from pain. When injured in an accident, your brain can block physical pain in order to survive. Our brain does the same thing with emotional pain.
Life exposes us to a series of traumas. Trauma occurs on a spectrum. Trauma often refers to major or big “T” events such as abuse or war. Everyone experiences little “t” traumas such as doing something embarrassing, a comment that hurts our feelings or car accidents. Sometimes traumatic experiences stay with us and we block them out. This is how dissociation works.
How does food play into dissociation? When we eat to the point that we feel sick, eat food and don’t remember it or want to stop eating and can’t stop ourselves, we might be dissociating. In those moments, food is no longer food. Food becomes a tool to comfort, numb or distract us from any emotional pain we are feeling.
Occasionally using food to separate from pain isn’t a big deal. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t do this on some level. The bigger issue is that these patterns with food often begin early in life when food is the only means of control or escape we have in our environment. The emotional connection to food forms strong neural pathways in our brain when used frequently. It becomes more difficult to learn to cope with strong emotions without food because the numbing that comes from eating is so effective.
When it gets to this point, other coping mechanisms get weak like an unused muscle experiences atrophy. Numbness is temporary. Then, you must deal with the emotion on top of the consequences of eating. Emotional eating helps us survive difficult experiences when we have no other way to cope. In adulthood, using any substance to cope with emotions begins to cause more problems than they solve.
By addressing the underlying experiences in therapy, you can start to change your relationship with food. In my practice, I have several therapies: EMDR Therapy, Accelerated Resolution Therapy, and my new favorite Comprehensive Resource Model which help us quickly get to the root of the emotional ties to emotional eating.