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Understanding Emotional Eating

Many people identify as emotional eaters, and lots of memes reinforce the practice of burying oneself in a packet of biscuits in response to stress (or the dreaded need to “adult”). So, what is emotional eating? It is a habitual tendency to overeat in response to (particularly) ‘negative’ emotions. Having said that, some people will eat in response to more pleasant emotions or perhaps even boredom.

Emotional Eating: Why do people do this?

Short answer: because it works. Eating delicious food (because it’s never a carrot) is pleasant and distracts from whatever situation or feeling One’s mind has evaluated as being unwanted.

Many people emotionally eating at some stage (if it’s a meme, it must be a Thing) and doing this every now and again is fine. Few things are problematic if used sporadically (with the possible exception of meth. And wearing Crocs. Definitely Crocs). Emotional eating becomes troublesome when it is the main (or only) tool One has to deal with emotions and difficult situations; the solution becomes the problem.

In fact, we all begin life as emotional eaters. Babies get fed when they cry and cease crying when they are soothed. As children develop, they optimally learn to regulate emotions in other ways – by expressing them to a trusted Someone who provides soothing, before they eventually learn to self-soothe. For various reasons, some people don’t learn to regulate their emotions internally, and instead revert to using external means – in this case, food (or…. alcohol, shopping, gambling, drugs, etc….). Perhaps your parents did not consistently respond to your emotions in helpful ways? Research has found that children from families with lower levels of emotional involvement experience more distress and have more unhealthy eating patterns. Children from families who were not emotionally responsive, had their feelings minimised, or were punished without explanation were also more likely to eat in response to negative emotions. Perhaps there were other stressors or changes going on in your family which prevented this? Maybe one of your parents was an emotional eater, and modelled this coping strategy? You may have been given food as a ‘treat’ for being good, or if you were upset. (Note: Psychotherapy can help you to uncover your own unique relationship with food).

Emotional eating is based on the desire to change or get rid of a feeling (or enhance them, in the case of pleasant emotions). However, what many people don’t realise (and culturally, this is rarely discussed), is that emotions (even the really unpleasant ones) are actually very important and helpful. So… let’s take a look at their function.

What are emotions, really?

Emotions are internal, biologically-based signals which direct One toward preserving life and relationships. All humans have emotions (even the people who claim they don’t…). Unless you are a plant, you have emotions. Researchers like Paul Ekman have identified 6 Primary emotions which are experienced by people across all cultures. These emotions all had an important survival value for our ancestors*:

  • Anger: In response to a threat, it provides power to protect resources and boundaries. A message that someone or something is interfering with goal attainment or something important.
  • Fear: Initiates fight/flight/freeze response.
  • Sadness: elicits care and compassion from Others. Facilitates reflection on people and things of value.
  • Joy: expansive; also draws Others to us. Facilitates exploration and creativity. When shared, is relationship-enhancing.
  • Disgust: Impulse to expel/repel something harmful or toxic. Protects One from exposure to contaminating material (physical or psychological).
  • Surprise: Quickly focuses attention on immediate events in One’s environment; allows for rapid response.

(* ok, it is a little more complex than this, but you get the point. This is a blog, not a thesis)

None of these emotions are ‘irrational’ (or ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ for that matter)….but they are ways of receiving very important information about things that are happening to us.

So why do some of them feel so unpleasant, and why do people want to avoid them?

Why do ‘negative’ emotions feel bad?

I personally don’t like applying this label to any emotion, but it is widely used and understood. ‘Negative’ emotions need to feel unpleasant so that we pay attention to them and act on them. It is more important for survival to react more quickly to fear than to joy. Joy needs to take a backseat when One is confronted by a grizzly bear.

There are other reasons why we struggle with emotions. In our upbringing, we may have been ridiculed for crying, or anger could have met with disapproval. Kids desperately want to fit in, so they learn to keep “inappropriate” things under wraps.

Secondary reactions to Primary emotions

Our emotional processes are rich and complex. One could easily identify more emotions than the 6 outlined above. Sometimes it may not be the feeling itself that is problematic, but the reaction to it. You may start to panic if you feel happy, because something bad could happen to ruin it. If you experience sadness, you may feel hopeless if you believe it will last forever. If anger has not been acceptable, you may feel shame; you could feel embarrassed if you cry in public. Or, you may have evaluations of your capacity to cope with the feeling: “This is awful, I can’t stand this”, “What if I feel this way forever?” These are secondary reactions, and it could be these that send you to the fridge (if not a bit of both).

Consequences of Emotional Eating

  1. You feel worse. Physical consequences may be discomfort or weight gain. Psychological consequences are remorse, guilt, disgust, and an unhelpful cycle of thoughts (e.g. “Stuff it, I may as well keep going”).
  2. You miss the message. One is temporarily soothed, but the original issue is still there, hiding under a chip packet. You indirectly rather than directly respond. Eating may take the edge off, and it becomes more tolerable in that moment. But….if you eat in response to seething resentment, you may not learn assertion. If you eat in response to loneliness, you to stay isolated, rather than connecting in a way that could alleviate loneliness more effectively. Remember, emotions exist for important reasons; the fact that they are unpleasant and uncomfortable means you will pay attention to them.
  3. You are not effectively processing your emotions. Eating disrupts effective emotional processing. Emotions pass in their own time, I promise. Emotions also won’t kill you… the worst they can do is feel bad. Anxiety passes when adrenaline is metabolised. Sadness will exhaust you. An inferno of raging anger cannot be maintained forever. When One learns to acknowledge and make space for feelings (allow them to be present and not try to change them, however unpleasant they feel), they will pass. Eating too soon in this process prevents natural processing. They stay under the surface and can be easily triggered by seemingly trivial or unrelated events.

Ok, so now what? Well this blog is already too long, so do tune in for the next upload… On How One Can Learn How Not to Eat One’s Emotions.

Angela can work with you to identify how you might be using food to manage difficult feelings, and develop healthier strategies that leave you feeling empowered and better about yourself.