Struggling with emotional eating? When I ask clients to look at why they have the urge to eat when they aren’t hungry, it can be hard for them to identify what drives them to food. This is probably because they have eaten for reasons other than hunger for so long, it is largely unconscious. Emotional eating is often an out of body experience. Meaning, when we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, we are eating to get out of our body and the sensations of our emotions.
What is Emotional Eating?
When we have used food to soothe our emotions for many years, we get good at not feeling emotions because we start to numb before we even register we are experiencing an emotion. This can make it hard for people to pinpoint what emotions drive them to food. So, what is emotional eating? To put it succinctly, if you are eating and you aren’t physically hungry, it is emotional eating. If you are eating to the point your body feels uncomfortable, it is emotional eating. It is also likely emotional eating if you are eating to cope with something hard, find yourself looking in the fridge or cabinet over and over again, or you are eating and can’t stop.
Shutting Down the Stress Response
Emotional eating is very powerful for a couple of reasons. First, it legitimately calms our nervous system on a physical level. Food engages our parasympathetic nervous system which helps us to feel calm temporarily. Food also releases dopamine which makes us feel happy. Our brains also build connections (called neural pathways) that tell us food will make us feel better. The more often we use food for emotional reasons, the stronger the neural pathways become. This is why going for a walk when we are stressed feels so much harder than reaching for candy.
You Aren’t Bored, You Are Lonely
Here is where loneliness comes in. Often, people think they are eating because they are bored. I don’t think boredom actually exists anymore. We are so overstimulated, we have countless things to entertain or distract us. Eating often comes in when we are stressed and lonely. Our nervous systems are hijacked and/or we don’t want to be alone with our own thoughts. Food becomes a powerful comfort. To truly heal our relationship with food, we need to address the underlying pain that keeps us going back to it even when the benefit is temporary. We also need to teach our body that it is safe to feel emotion by practicing skills to keep us in our window of tolerance.