Do you overeat when you feel anxious,frustrated, or stressed? Bored or in a rut? Angry? Our emotional health can play havoc with our eating patterns. Because of what is “eating” us up inside, we can experience binges, cravings, and an inability to consistently control the amount of food we consume, no matter how motivated we are to stay on our diets or to make healthy lifestyle changes that will help us keep undesired weight off permanently.
This is because unless we overcome the powerful emotions that can trigger overeating, we will only be treating a symptom, which in this case, is excessive food intake for reasons other than physical hunger. Other such symptoms, reflecting essentially ineffective problem-solving responses, include excessive drinking and smoking as well as excessive use of prescription, over-the-counter, and illegal drugs.
For emotional overeaters, food is not the underlying problem and therefore cannot be the total solution. While it is crucial to permanent weight loss that individuals make healthy food choices, unless he or she develops new and effective ways of dealing with the emotional roots of their overeating, cravings and binges, all weight loss plans and any hard-earned progress they make will be jeopardized.
Here are three ways to help overcome emotional overeating:
#1. Keep a journal and record what triggers your overeating and how it affects your feelings. Include any other information you feel could be important. For example, you may find that you eat when you feel tired and stressed, bored, or “blue”, and tend to reach for comfort foods such as candy, cake, or ice cream. You may find that the quick surge of energy from these foods gives you a temporary feeling of energy or euphoria. Suddenly things seem brighter, or you get that mid-day lift to help you tackle your work through the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes you may find yourself craving other types of foods, including potato chips or popcorn when, for example, you are sitting and working on a project or watching a movie. Putting something in your mouth feels good and reduces some of the tension you may be feeling as you intensely develop your project or are engrossed, with idle hands, in what you are watching. Record what you ate, when it happened, and what occurred or what you were feeling before you overate.
Keep the journal for as long as you can. Review it periodically to see what insights you can become aware of. The time you spend on developing it will be well worth it. Not only will you increasingly learn emotional reasons for your overeating, but you will be able to see patterns of responses developing. For example, let’s consider that your journal reflects a number of entries, including that you overate last week after your boss reprimanded you very harshly for something you felt wasn’t your fault, overate a few days ago when your mother-in-law spoke to you in a condescending manner in public, and overate just today after you found out that a coworker with less skills and experience than you got the promotion you had worked so hard for. A review of these events and your overeating responses should reveal to you that you eat at times when you feel angry or put down in some way. You may not always see the relationships quite this easily. You may also be upset by emotions that festered for several days or more and reached a certain stress tolerance level in your body before you finally responded and turned to food, so that the relationships may be more complicated and difficult to spot. However, over time, you will be able to recognize these more complicated reactions as well.
#2. Develop other ways to deal with your emotions rather than turn to food. For example, if you grab a candy bar when you feel stressed or in need of extra energy and motivation, ask yourself if there might not be less fattening and healthier ways to deal with these feelings. Perhaps you could take a small box of raisins or apple or other fruit to work. Or you could take an extra rest break or go to bed earlier at night so you could have more energy throughout the day. If you feel bored and tend to overeat at night, perhaps you could take up a new hobby, spend more time with friends in non-eating related activities, join a dance class, or enroll in a class you might enjoy. If you eat because you feel rejected, inadequate, or otherwise inferior compared to others, try improving your self-image or self-confidence. Find things that you do well and do them often. Spend more time creating opportunities for daily success, even if they seem small or relatively unimportant, because they will add up and offer support in helping you develop positive feelings about yourself. Treat yourself like the special and unique person you are by taking good care of yourself daily, pampering yourself often, and spending more time with people who emotionally lift you up and make you feel good about yourself and what you do.
#3. Change your thinking. It is important to realize that it is not what happens to us that causes us to have certain feelings, but what we think about those events, and how we interpret and react to them. For example, if we lose two pounds, we can think how wonderful it is that we lost the two pounds and celebrate our success, or we can feel that it wasn’t enough and be upset and berate ourselves for failing to lose more. Also, if we feel we are powerless in a situation, we will feel stressed and unable, as well as consequently unwilling, to find a solution. Perhaps the boss just gave us a deadline we can’t possibly meet, or we just found out our bills exceed our incomes. In both cases, if we feel overwhelmed and unable to do anything about the situations, our feelings can escalate so that the stress levels become intolerable. At that point we may overeat and thus feel better, at least temporarily. A more effective, healthy, and less fattening approach to the dilemmas we face would be to consider our options. Perhaps the boss could give us an extension or help us meet the deadline in another way. Perhaps we could look for a job, even if it were temporary, or sell something we have. There are solutions for every problem, if only we look and accept the challenge rather than habitually reach for something that is only a temporary fix.
You will want to continue learning about yourself and creating new, more effective options for dealing with your emotions. Your efforts will be rewarded as you not only improve your ability to take weight off and keep it off permanently, but you develop happier, healthier emotions in the process. Keep in mind that you can do it and that you will be successful one step at a time.