How to manage overeating, stress eating and emotional eating with real tools and guidelines that work.

Eating is sustenance, eating is comfort so it is no surprise that many of us turn to food when our anxiety peeks, stress threatens to topple us, we get bored or a blue mood settles in. For almost every culture, food can be the focus of celebrations or used as a reward. And though food will provide a temporary upswing in your mood, it doesn’t address the real problems you are facing. Likewise, medicating with food can cause health problems and rebound guilt and weight gain that can increase negative feelings. Most of us eat emotionally now and then but if you think it is becoming a problem for you, there are a few things you can do to help manage and reduce emotional eating.

Deal with your feelings

The truth is that negative feelings are really uncomfortable. They can be hard to acknowledge and address for many reasons. First, they feel bad. Literally, strong negative emotions will be felt in your body. You might feel tightness in your chest or throat, an upset stomach or feelings of nausea, or even an accompanying neck tightness or headache that comes with tension. No one likes to feel these uncomfortable body sensations and so many of us try to mask or avoid thinking about a difficult situation or unpleasant feelings. Second, negative emotions can feel really overwhelming.

Sometimes there is a sense that if we feel the anger or grief or disappointment within us, it can threaten to bury us in those feelings. Maybe you worry that if you get upset and start crying you won’t be able to stop. The truth about negative feelings is that if you don’t deal with them, they deal with you. Unaddressed feelings don’t go away, they just percolate and leak out. These feelings can also act as a low level, but constant buzz in the back of your head where they can morph into anxiety, physical health issues and depression. Eating is a temporary distraction to these feelings but it doesn’t fix anything, more likely, when you overeat you fell guilt or shame which just compounds your negative emotions.

So how do you deal with your feelings? You can talk it out with a friend, a therapist, meditate or even journal. It is difficult to do and scary but learn to sit with your feelings. If you have grief for instance, try to sit in a quiet, private place and let your feelings well up within you. At first you will likely feel the sadness and grief profoundly but you may begin to notice that if you sit and pay attention to it, acknowledge it, the feelings will begin to ebb. If you know you have some buried feelings but aren’t sure how to access them, a therapist or counselor can help. There are also many self-help books that can assist you in getting started.

H.A.L.T: Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired

When the urge to munch comes on, take a minute to reflect before you put that cupcake in your mouth. The acronym HALT can be helpful. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. The purpose is to reflect on your feelings and determine if you are actually hungry or using food to address a deeper emotional issue. If you ate dinner an hour and a half ago and you are reaching for a snack, chances are you are not physically hungry you are craving an emotional fix. If you find you are bored, go paint your nails, read a book, do whatever interests you. Tell yourself that you will not eat for at least thirty minutes while you do something else. You may find that once your mind is diverted, you forget the urge to graze. If you are lonely, call a friend or find an online support group or likeminded social group to give you a way to connect at nearly any time the mood strikes you. If you are tired, go to sleep. You may also be dehydrated rather than hungry so before you reach for the cookies, have a glass of water and give yourself some time to see if the desire to eat passes.

Food diary

When you keep a record of what you eat, when you eat and how you are feeling, you can become aware of patterns in your eating and triggers that may lead to emotional overeating. Do you binge on the nights before an important work or school project is due? Maybe you can find another way to address the building stress other than food. Do you tend to overeat on weekend nights as a reward or from loneliness? Perhaps you could plan an activity with friends or pick a special movie or project instead.

Self care

Food can become our go to reward or self-soothing activity to the point that we forget what other things are fun or relaxing. So sit down and think about what things nurture your feelings of well-being, reduce your stress or function as a positive non-food reward. Take a bath, go for a walk, pet or play with your animal, listen to music, get a massage—these pleasant activities can take the place of emotional eating much of the time.

When you have a setback

Remember, dealing with your emotions and healthful eating is like a marathon, not a sprint. Making small, lasting changes will add up to a big win in the long run. So don’t beat yourself up when you overeat or eat emotionally. It doesn’t fix the problem and it may just cause more negative feelings which can spur on more food fixes. Go easy on yourself and try to identify what triggered the eating. If you can identify your triggers you can learn to jump in with alternatives before you finish the whole box of crackers.
Avoid the “oh my gosh I need to go on a diet right now” moment because deprivation leads to binging. Problem solving should focus on long -term livable solutions not the latest fad cleanse or extreme diet. And educate yourself on healthy eating to make the best choices most of the time. It’s okay to have cake on a birthday or warm, calorie rich comfort food but indulge as a thoughtful choice steeped in awareness rather than a bandaid to cover feelings that need to be understood and felt.

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