What do we mean by “emotional eating”? Emotional eating is a colloquial term that usually refers to situations where people eat when upset, stressed, distressed, as a way of coping with the upset. Eating may help people distract from what has upset them, zone out generally, sooth themselves, treat or reward themselves and so on. Overall the effect is that the mood or emotion is to a degree neutralised. This type of eating is not associated with being hungry, and indeed can happen or continue to happen when someone is feeling quite full.
Emotional eating is a relatively common behavior – it becomes a problem when the behavior itself is causing distressing emotions such as guilt, shame and anxiety, and is resulting in lowered self esteem and feelings of loss of control, and when it is occurring with sufficient frequency to cause unhealthy weight gain. It is also a problem when eating is used as a way of managing emotions almost every time an unwanted emotion shows up– a sort of all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach to managing life, which means that a person is not learning or using more adaptive ways to manage emotional stress.
How does a clinical psychologist help people in this situation? Together, we analyse episodes of emotional eating, and we work out what event first prompted the urge to eat, the thoughts that showed up about that prompting event, the mood changes that occurred, and then any thoughts about those mood changes, such as “I can’t stand feeling upset like this!” which amplifies the mood, leading of course to further difficulties tolerating it.
Let’s look at an example. Ruth struggles with emotional eating and she has an argument with her daughter when she cancelled plans to go out for a meal together without giving a reason. Ruth interprets this as meaning she is not important to her daughter and that her daughter is thoughtless, which causes feelings of both rejection and anger. Ruth then starts to get upset about being emotional - “Now I am going to feel awful all weekend, I know it!” She is now at risk of engaging in emotional eating as a way of changing or reducing the intensity of her unwanted mood state. If the eating reduces the intensity of the mood and emotions for Ruth, even for a brief period, it is reinforced as a coping behaviour, and is more likely to happen again next time Ruth is upset. The important point here is that even though the long term consequences of using food like this are overall negative as we noted above, the behaviour continues because the short term effect, in the “right now’, is a neutralisation of unwanted emotions and moods.
To help someone step out of this cycle, a psychologist will teach him or her to slow down and analyse the situation as soon as a potential trigger occurs, and then learn to use alternate ways to cope with difficult emotions and moods that work well in the short term and do not have the negative long-term consequences that emotional eating may have.
If you or someone close to you struggles with this kind of emotional eating pattern, please consider contacting me via my contact page and together we can plan an appropriate treatment strategy to help you.