People with eating disorders often worry that they cope with their emotions by using food. They ask, am I eating emotionally? How do I know? You generally can tell if you are emotionally eating if you start eating because of emotions, and not because it is a mealtime or you feel hungry.
Emotional eating is quite common, even if you don't have an eating disorder. Food is naturally soothing, eating is a pleasant experience, and most people feel better after they eat! From an early age, we have all been given food for many reasons besides hunger; to express love or approval, to show hospitality, to celebrate special occasions, to help us cope with negative experiences. Many people learn to eat to cope with difficult emotions, to distract themselves, to procrastinate, and to celebrate. Occasional emotional eating is not a problem, and it certainly does not mean that you have an eating disorder. Many times, the clients I work with agree that maybe the goal is not to stop it entirely, but to make it less frequent, or at the very least stop at moderate fullness, and to learn other coping strategies. Or maybe even learn to sit with difficult emotions without fighting to make them go away immediately.
One of the things I work with my clients is learning other coping strategies, rather than using eating as a "go-to" strategy to cope with difficult emotions. It is easy for eating to become your only coping strategy. That is because eating works extremely well in the short run, so the next time you are more likely to feel like eating when you are experiencing difficult emotions. Once this pattern is established, it is much more likely that you will keep using this strategy, and eating becomes a "go-to" coping strategy, as the association between eating and feeling better becomes stronger and stronger. Eating can feel like an easier solution than using other coping strategies or meeting complex psychological issues. The problem with emotional eating is that you often feel more upset after you are done.
If you notice an urge to eat when you are not hungry, ask yourself how eating will change your emotional state? Is there another coping strategy that you could use? Perhaps praying, doing a yoga video, going on a walk, reading a book, going on a walk, getting a massage, taking a hot shower/bath, calling a friend, etc? It can also be helpful to learn to sit with difficult emotions, to view emotions as temporary states that eventually pass by (kind of like a house visitor), instead of trying to push emotions away or getting rid of them. We can remind ourselves that difficult emotions are not bad or dangerous, and that they will eventually go away.
Difficult emotions can also teach us something useful. When we accept our difficult emotions instead of fighting them, we can see things clearly as they really are. We allow whatever is to be present. Difficult emotions and emotional eating can mean that you have an underlying psychological issue that you may need to tackle, that you have been trying to avoid. Perhaps you feel deprived regarding food, or a lack of adequate pleasures. Perhaps you feel isolated socially. Maybe work or family is too demanding. Maybe there are a lot of financial stressors. Or maybe there are health problems or other psychological issues going on. Solving these issues will result in decreases in emotional eating.
Sala Psychology is based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Specialties include anxiety disorders, depression, and behavioral weight loss issues.