Emotional Eating: How to Tackle Negative Soothing Habits Tied to Food
Emotional Eating, in this blog, translates as negative soothing habits around food that relate to specific emotional states. So, depending on your dynamic, that could mean binging, constant eating in an unconscious state, withholding food, or feelings of powerlessness with a complete lack of control that feels similar to being possessed or out of body. If you’re not an emotional eater but you have negative emotional-soothing habits, you will likely also get something out of this post. It’s about how we have grown patterns of soothing – and also a few tools for objectively tackling them - at the root.
Hi friends! This is a reblog of a much older podcast episode (Ep 49). If you prefer to listen, here's the podcast version on iTunes and Soundcloud. xo
Part 1: The What
What is emotional eating? Negative habits around food that relate to emotional states. So that could be binging or overeating or a complete lack of control almost like a drug state.
You might eat in front of the TV over long periods of time. That's unconscious eating, a machine mode way of creating a chemical state in your brain. You might withhold food and then swing in the other direction, binging. Or you might live in a constant state of control and painful focus - never able to let go and enjoy eating, always fearing it.
When you emotionally eat, it comes from a place of managing stress and emotional pain. It catalyzes a lack of connection to our body and what it is asking for: eating becomes something removed from nourishment and nutrition, and therefore - a big problem. We are unable to relate it to actually feeding ourselves and it becomes another thing to be feared and abused. Why this is so important is it has everything to do with emotional processes, nothing to do with actual food. The real properties of food are irrelevant to this problem - outside of how they alter your physical processes after your body has been out abused for many years. The initial inspiration for emotional eating has nothing to do with your love of food. It just happened to be what hooked you. If you grew up somewhere else, you might be a compulsive masterbater. Why am I stressing this so much? Because if you have this issue you likely relate it greatly to your body image – you might Google stuff like “dieting” which implies this is related to your inability to properly select the correct balance of nutrition. Nope – that is a no-brainer. You can read about proper nutrition in thousands of health magazines. It’s not that impossible to understand proper ratios. It comes down to an innate distrust of our bodies and ourselves that comes from alienation. You can't see the compass therefore you're afraid to take a step. Thus the imbalance becomes the driver - and that's like driving with lead feet. "I'm starving!" "I'm out of control!"
Food is a metaphor for how we deal with fear and pain. We either run, we lash out, we hide, we embrace, or we crumble. And we do those same things with food. In Buddhism, they call these psychological types out as the grasping/fear type, the rejecting/anger type, or the denial/adrift type. So depending on your type, you will react to stress in a predictable set of ways because you have grown accustomed to coping with certain bad habits.
Eating, just like sex, has an emotional tie. It's got a lot of layers of meaning within our psyche. It's nourishment and life. When you feed something, you give it life and nourishment. You also quench an emptiness by filling it. On a chemical level, your body also gets a dose of natural calming drugs from calorie-rich, fatty foods. For this reason, food gets mixed up with themes like worthiness, emptiness and longing - it becomes metaphorically tied to nourishing ourselves and receiving love, emotionally. This totally makes it an easy target for self-soothing.
Negative habits are easy to take on when there’s a very low barrier of access. Unlike drugs and sex, food is an automatic part of life. So you are around it constantly. And it’s a major focus in society: weight, beauty and diet are everywhere. Developing these issues is tied to a lack of connection to self and to the real value of food. But it has nothing to do with food!! Your issues are tied to managing pain. And like any other bad habit, it takes conscious and the right effort to break it.
Part 2: The Why
It's all a metaphor. Food issues are all tied to low self worth- it’s not about saving yourself, it’s about using yourself. Keeping yourself punished. "Step in line, self!" A way to focus on something in your control. “My body is the problem in my life.” This keeps you playing a game of dolls and not really confronting the source of anxiety that is going on in the room you're standing in. All eating disorders are a way to control the source of your pain by morphing it into something you can see. You are labeling it external (my reflection) to make it less overwhelming. Otherwise it's just in you and terrifyingly overwhelming. There’s no way to get the anxiety out! Unless you take drugs, drink or self-cut. So if you didn't have a voice for your pain or have any access to understanding it growing up, you kept it in and turned it on yourself via food. Eating Disorders are tied to inescapable discomfort and trauma – they are super common in families with a lack of emotional tolerance or language for painful emotions like fear and vulnerability. If you're a sufferer, it’s likely something you got used to using in part because of your family dynamics.
So this is set up by something very old. Has nothing to do with how much you love food. That might be your rationale, but that’s false. What compounds this cycle is your chemicals get way out of whack and you end up feeling hungrier, more desperate, more imbalanced, more tired, more hyper-vigilant. It’s like supporting a drug habit in that it removes you from your identity and drains your resources for functioning, immensely!
• If you eat your pain: you’re the stuffer. It's the bottomless pit dynamic. It will never fill that void of longing and emptiness but it takes a bit of the edge off. You don't speak up, and you become invisible. This began as a chemical way to self soothe, but it also created the desired result: When you stay fat, you stay invisible. This is also subconsciously tied to not wanting sexual attention. As soon as you are thin people advance, and this is uncomfortable.
• If you control your pain: you’re the truth speaker. Often the binger/purger. When we are the controller in our family, or "the mini adult" - we control our feelings and our powerlessness with food intake control. This is the type-A, rebel, fuck you to everyone else at the table kind of family member. You numb your pain: stuffing and binging has to do with a form of removing the real feelings from their cause. It’s such a distraction, it becomes a new kind of job. You do it when you’re not wanting to be conscious with anxiety. You hand it your keys and say, “you drive, now.”
• If you force others to care about your pain and remove your own power: you’re the infant. Often the anorexic/withholder. Lack of food becomes the method of soothing via constant obsession and focus, and self-perpetuated helplessness. This means you remove your experience from your body entirely and instead become an object. This is often passed down from a parent and their unrealistic expectations. It’s actually a way to get your parents to finally baby you and give you attention, like reverting to infancy. The disorder replaces everything else that might cause you pain. You become nothing more than a glass figure – and with that, your view is always distorted. This is a way to completely remove your senses from your body and become an object to be scrutinized with third-party coldness. It is the most severe disconnection to body and sanity because of how it warps your vision. Chemically, you are the most disabled because of what a lack of nutrition does to your brain.
With all of these different styles, there is a disconnect that makes an imbalance so severe that it replaces all innate knowledge. So you are always responding and reacting to the imbalance, unaware of what it will do but placating it, always keeping it at bay - and just like any addiction, it's a compensation game. A full time job of control. Which is subconsciously what we wanted all along: a game to play that gave us an adequate reason for our pain.
The imbalance is what is propelling it. Forever. Until you choose to reconnect to your innate balance, over this reactive state. The solution is choosing to come back into your body and listen to it once again. Which, I know- is quite terrifying: like a house you grew up in, that is probably haunted and unsafe. But - the balance comes back to you. It takes time and bravery and unwavering commitment - but you will get there. You'll rebuild a few walls, put up fresh wallpaper. And then it will be more beautiful and full of light than it ever was before.
So with that, let’s get to the tools!
Part 3: The How - The Tools
This is likely a battle that you have fought hard so I think first to address is hope and understanding. Even if you've tried and failed at getting help for yourself, a large piece of this puzzle is working out the underlying feelings at the bottom of this - in therapy, and most importantly - committing to the right goal. It has to be unconditional. You must choose your health and well-being, solely. At all costs. It can't be conditional based on staying a certain weight - it must be a pure pursuit. I want to be free of this suffering and be happy. And i'll do whatever it takes. And I will tell you that goal - leads to everything you want. The weight, the balance, the holistic happiness. All of it starts with a goal to love and know thyself.
In addition to that, exercise is very helpful for chemical support. *Unless you binge via exercise – then, I’d say breathing exercises are important for you - while sitting in a meditative pose. And depending on how long this has been going on, I'd recommend getting a nutritionist with a background in ED's or even better - a nature-path: someone who can help you find the right supplements and accurate amount of food intake based on your personal history. In other words, create a shit ton of structure for yourself! Hit this with all the smarts you've got. The more secure you can feel, the easier it will be to trust this path. Build yourself a personal team of experts.
Tool 1. E-Cord List
This thing has you beat at the moment, and you are going to seek out every tool possible and further distance yourself from it. To do that you need to get objective about it. Think of it like you're removing a growth. A parasite. Go to the different places and remove it. Once you see your way around the chemical talons hooked into your emotions, the spell will be broken forever!
That starts with building the right Emergency Cord or “E-Cord list” in our case, and by that I mean a list of 10 things you can do as soon as you get that inkling of feeling that you’re in a danger zone. This list = What can you do to self-soothe? For example, I have everything from hiking to podcasts with a walk around the block to a handstand in my office to Alanon meetings on my e-cord list. It’s all about making sure you are covered in all types of situations! And don’t go light on the soothing – it’s about soothing hard, beyond what you feel like doing, until it becomes a natural habit and you can see the positive results. Don't take it lightly. Treat it like the devil’s waiting by the door with an ear to your mind.
If you feel anxious, go to your list. If you THINK you MAYBE might feel anxious this weekend, then you fill that day with items from your list. You book backups to the backups on your calendar. This is about massive amounts of structure and support. KNOW your safe zones and RUN out the door before you hear the voice of your pain start to whisper.
2. Red Alert: Create a Warning Phrase
Something like, “Bottomless Pit!” You need a mantra or catch phrase that you can call out when you notice things are heading in the bad direction. This is all about having a heightened awareness of the voice that is currently super quiet. Staying intimately conscious. The voice of Ed is different than yours, it's like a sinister self- and it's likely emboldened by specific kinds of environments and situations when certain emotional dynamics appear. Your job is to become conscious of what they are - and prep for them.
For example, if you had a family where everything was hidden under the surface, then that type of situation will trigger you - even if you're at work. Spot the rituals and the triggers and practice calling them out. "I feel bottomless." You can sense them coming - be OVERLY sensitive to them and get the fuck out of there. Enable yourself to choose rationally and if you can’t handle it, don’t go! If you can, have a buddy who you involve in what's going on with you. Tell them a code word. Call for help. Make sure they will be there to scoop you up! Have a back-up buddy to call.
It's all about buying time to allow the trigger to pass. The more you can delay, the closer you are to safety. Give yourself time to get to that item on your e-cord list.
3. Replace the addiction
You're likely somewhat choosing this habit in a conscious state. Probably because you assume you don't have a choice. That you are always going to do this. Not the case. It's a soothing addiction. But you likely HATE IT. You're probably so fucking sick of it and wish it was never a part of you. You envy others who have none of it. This habit is an addiction just like most habits.. But it's not you, you're not enjoying it, your body doesn't feel good as a result of it. None of it is what you really want. It's a compulsion.
So start there: separate it from you, the person.
What you have to do is focus on the moment before you’re about to do it – and figure out a replacement addiction. For example, get addicted to nutritionist info. Or sex for that matter! This is not forever - it's just to take a bit of the power away from your current addiction. If you could get super into online shopping but not checking out - try that on for size. Let’s say nutrition for now, since it seems the least unhealthy. You get a nutritionist and you buy a bunch of books and you start going to a new meditation class and you have a new bestie you call to talk when you’re down and you sign up for new yoga classes – and you try going all in to all these things. This becomes something you can pour lots of energy and obsession into.
The goal being - in that moment right before you think you’re going to head in your addictive spiral, when you feel anxious, you use something new. As I said before, it’s all about creating a new connection that is not tied to food. Being successful just for a few minutes – getting yourself heading in a totally different direction from food.
When in doubt, just leave the house! Walk out the door. Get out of wherever you are and zag. And do ANYTHING different until you can’t do it any longer. For me that was yoga, then walking, then calling a friend, then walking some more while listening to a podcast, til it was dark outside and my dog refused to walk any further. You can and will train in a new habit and your body will grow a similar reliance on it – but you’ve got to throw yourself into action despite your brain at the start in order to get it to take hold. Just go all in on as many things as you can, with all your might. It won't feel right or that it's sustainable and then after a few weeks, you'll realize it has worked.
4. Clean House
Outside of that – proof the environment. That means removing snack foods from your house, pre-making your lunches, skipping after work happy hours, trimming all the models from your Instagram feed - whatever makes you feel anxious and shitty - it needs to go!
With all of this, it isn’t forever – it’s just until you can get your balance back! And it WILL come back. It takes about a year for everything to reset – the hardest part is choosing to go all in.
I know it sucks when you feel powerless and that you've tried everything and you lose hope. Having been there I can say once you stop being afraid of the path and begin walking it for the good of your health- things get clearer than they ever could be from where you are now. You build the right support and you're never alone. You have all differ eg kinds of strength and not just your own. And if you're type a you likely suffer alone quite a bit - you think I'm smart I've always been able to do more than anyone else, if i can't help me - no one can. And why wouldn't you? You're basing life on a pattern.
Well that's a falsity that screws us the most. Start now and ask for support. Hire it. Treat this like a pitch you really want to win and do it right. Not alone. And just fucking get it done. And if you're in a place now where your assuming you are different and you're wondering if you could ever stop struggling with this the answer is if you keep looking and block no options for yourself - stop hiding and mean it. Absolutely you will solve it and literally be free of this issue. It just takes committing to never losing hope on yourself. Even if it takes the rest of your life. Stay forever undyingly hopeful - everyone has a solution and has their own perfect cocktail. You are responsible for seeking it out and applying it aggressively until you start to see the results. Because once you do - the spell is broken. You will never u know it. Like a truth that you finally witness- you can never un know it. Things become crystal clear from there. It's wonderful. Best moment ever. You get your life back! Your true untangled self back.