Stress-eating, or emotional eating, is often a very secretive experience. Nobody wants to admit they eat three chocolate bars in a row, followed by a half-pint of ice cream on occasion. Or regularly.
And so it is often done alone, with nobody around and nobody watching. There is space to just let go and go for it. Unsupervised, unwatched and unleashed, it offers moments of escape from our minds and from ourselves.
We seek relief from our schedules, our unloved bodies or our unsatisfying lives. Built-up tension, anxiety, frustration and general discomfort needs an outlet. Stat. So binging becomes the drug that instantly, yet momentarily, soothes. We become completely distracted by losing ourselves in the experience of gorging, attempting to fill the emptiness inside of us. But the answers we seek and the happiness we long for will never be found in food. We know that, but it still keeps happening.
Because this is such an unwanted and secretive pattern for most of us, we feel alone in our struggle. The guilt that shows up during or immediately afterward, the pain in our gut, the grossness of our perceived body image and the disgust of what we just did sends us deeper into the spiral of shame and frustration.
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that is often unconsciously developed as a way to handle stress.
When we feel a form of stress (uncertainty, discomfort, emptiness, insecurity) we crave comfort (sweets, treats, fullness). Although everyone’s experience of emotional eating is unique, most often food is something that is turned to in attempt to deal with the stresses of life.
The action of stress-eating is a symptom of a deeper issue. Just like a sore back can be a symptom of poor posture, stress-eating is a symptom telling us that something is off in our lives. It is a sign that we are out of alignment with ourselves and it is calling for our attention to address that imbalance.
Perhaps we have been making other people more important than ourselves. Or we push aside our own feelings and ignore our inner voice. Or we live a life that is not actually in line with our values and what we believe in. Our jobs may deplete us and we have forgotten to take the time to nourish our bodies and our souls, or we have simply forgotten how to. We have lost the knowing of who we are and what we need to feel fulfillment in our lives.
The journey back toward ease around food and our bodies begins when we start to truly nurture and listen to ourselves. When we stop classifying food as good, bad, right or wrong, or when we start to recognize and care about what our bodies need to thrive. As we begin to develop new coping mechanisms, we feel more confident and fulfilled in life. This helps us – over time – to move further and further away from stress-eating patterns.
For many, stress-eating patterns develop over – and are with us for – a long time. The journey toward unraveling and being free from these patterns can take months, days or years – with many ups and downs along the way. It can be helpful to find support – such as a best friend or family member – who will support and love you along the way without judging your experience. You may also want to look for a mental health or natural healthcare practitioner you align with; they just might offer the exact support and guidance you need to let go of those patterns.
Below are some ways to begin nourishing your body, self and soul to start the healing process.
Feed Your Self
Because emotional eating is a way to find relief and comfort in our lives, it is important to make more fulfilling choices for ourselves. Observe where your life might be out of balance. Where do you give too much of yourself? How often do you do the hobbies you love? What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun? What did you love to do as a kid but don’t do anymore? Do your friends support you and your goals? Our bodies and souls need mental and emotional nourishment as well as food. The more we feed ourselves mentally and emotionally, the less we will lean on food to fulfill us.
Notice Your Thoughts
What are you saying to yourself over and over? What are you thinking about your body? Or other people’s bodies? Our minds have so much power over us. When we keep feeding negative thoughts, we begin to really believe them, even when they might not be real or true. Try writing down some of the negative thoughts you have. Write as many of them out as you can. (But don’t stop here, it’s important that if you start this exercise to do the second part as well, otherwise you will just be left with all your negative thoughts.) The second part of the exercise is to write "who would I be without this thought?" for every negative thought you just wrote down. Carry on with this train of thought by writing down the answers to "what is available to me if this thought isn’t true?" and "who would I be without this pattern?" Write down anything that comes to your mind.
Listen to Your Body
Through the struggle with food, many of us have lost touch with our own bodies. We have let our minds take over by calculating calories, judging fat content, assessing portions. We have to listen to our bodies and understand its language so that we can actually nourish ourselves. For example, if we have a sudden craving for chips, we might try to fight or will it away. However, if we open up to the craving as a sign from our bodies, we might realize that the craving for chips always comes on when we are actually really tired. So by noticing what feeling the craving is trying to soothe, instead of fighting the it or labelling it as "bad," you might find alternative, non-food, solutions and feel nourished by those instead.
Have you adapted your life to suit everyone but yourself? Do you say "yes" to things you are craving to say "no" to? Do you actually like quiet nights at home but are spending most evenings out? Saying no to things that aren’t serving you is an important piece of the puzzle. Your body craves your presence, so when you get pulled to places and in ways you don’t care for, your body feels the imbalance and it will want your attention ASAP. For some, emotional eating happens when we have let too much time pass without making space for ourselves and our needs.
What are your strategies for dealing with feeling overwhelmed? Let me know in the comments below!