Escaping the Prison of Emotional Eating

Have you ever felt compelled to keep stuffing yourself to the point of discomfort? Maybe you’ve found yourself reaching for a packet of cookies when you’re home alone, tired and lonely? Perhaps it’s even healthy foods you’ve overeaten, such as a whole bag of raw nuts.

If so, you are one of many who have eaten for emotional reasons.

Emotional eating can wreak havoc on your mental, emotional and physical health if left unaddressed.

It can lead to negative self talk and self deprecation as you continually feel disappointed with yourself each time you overeat or eat poor quality foods.

It can leave you feeling emotionally void and unsatisfied as you use food to try to numb yourself or satisfy emotional needs that cannot be met by food.

As you continue to make poor food choices and binge, your physical health will also decline. Your digestion will be compromised, you will gain weight around your middle and you will likely start to develop symptoms linked to a poor diet (which is almost all symptoms!) such as acne, headaches, constipation, gas and many more.

Yet despite what your reason and intelligence tells you to do (i.e. give up the emotional eating), you are unable to stop yourself from doing it yet again. You might promise yourself then that you will never do it again but one week later you find yourself in the exact same situation, followed by all of the above physical, mental and emotional consequences.

Every time you act on your emotional urges by consuming food, you reinforce to yourself that you are no good, not in control, not worthy, a failure, stupid, weak, or any other words that you choose to put yourself down with. You are trapped in a prison of emotional eating and self disgust.

This is because emotional eating is such a deeply ingrained behavior you have been playing out for so long that it is hardly a conscious habit anymore.

Sometimes it is driven by societal and cultural norms or media messages such as eating excessively on holidays or eating ice cream or chocolate when you are going through a difficult break up. Sometimes it is a result of a traumatic event or deep sadness, grief, loneliness or self doubt and you have learned to use food to distract you from the pain.

Other times it has started from a very young age watching caregivers, friends or influences eat for emotional reasons or from learning that food is a treat for when you are upset. Even as a baby you were probably exposed to or taught to repress emotions and consume instead. Usually there is a combination of these factors (and many more) at work which shines the light on why emotional eating can be so challenging to break free of.

Below I share two initial steps that will set you on the path to freedom from emotional eating. In my own personal experience with emotional eating (which has been long and difficult and resulted in many years of binging which I have now thankfully released) and from my experience of working with countless clients to release emotional eating habits and improve their health and life quality, these two steps are vital to healing your relationship with food and getting true emotional satisfaction. Both require a mental leap from where you are now and are necessary to break yourself free from the prison you are in.

1. Recognize that your emotional eating behavior is a gift that is telling you something needs your attention.

It can be easy to ignore the reasons behind your emotional eating habit. It’s much easier to just blame it on any old surface level excuse and just get on with the eating. What is difficult is to really look at why you are feeling driven to eat at all. Often you don’t want to know what emotions are really driving your behavior as then it’s implied that you have to deal with them. When some of these emotions are suppressed pain, sadness, anger or conflicted beliefs, this can seem extremely daunting.

Here’s how I suggest you approach this:

  • Acknowledge to yourself that you have real, unmet emotional needs that aren’t being satisfied so you eat instead. If that’s as far as you want to go for now, that’s fine. Take the pressure off yourself – you’ve at least come this far. You might not feel ready yet to delve into your emotional well-being, but know you will need to take this step eventually if you want to heal your emotional eating habit.
  • If you are ready to be free of emotional eating, start to notice what you are thinking and feeling when you feel compelled to overeat or make poor food choices. Stop for just 60 seconds before you stuff the first mouthful in and ask yourself “what am I really hungering for right now?” This will start the process of getting really honest with yourself and recognizing what emotions lay beyond your mindless consumption habit. Once you know what your real emotions and needs are, you can begin to look at how they would be truly fulfilled. Trust me, it’s not in the fridge.

2. You don’t have to be afraid to no longer use food as comfort or for pleasure.

It can feel completely terrifying to think that you may not have food as a crutch when your emotions are all over the place. There’s no need to be scared. I am not going to suggest you stop using food for comfort entirely and certainly not for pleasure!

Eating can be an incredibly sensual and rewarding experience and I personally make it a point to find pleasure in my food each and every time I eat. However there is a difference between enjoying food for the joy and sensations it provides and abusing it time and again so that you feel uncomfortable and unhappy with your body and life.

You CAN celebrate and enjoy delicious, healthy, nourishing, abundant meals while simultaneously healing your relationship with food so that it becomes a joyous experience rather than a painful one.

Now keep repeating this to yourself so that you don’t let your fear prevent you from really getting this. I’ll say it again: you can still use food for comfort when you choose to. The difference is that you will feel in control of your choices and be able to choose when you want to eat food for comfort, rather than it controlling you. See, it’s not scary, it’s empowering.

If you take the above two steps and allow them to change your mindset, you will have started the process of healing your relationship with food and becoming free from the prison of emotional eating.

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