The socio-economic devastation of COVID-19 landed me in therapy. Like many of us impacted by the pandemic, I was struggling to maintain a positive outlook on my life. During my first therapy session, I learned I was suffering from emotional eating. (1) The realisations came quickly: I wasn’t always eating to satisfy hunger. Often I was eating to relieve stress and discomfort, even to reward myself. I wasn’t reaching for healthy options either – fruit, nuts, wholegrains – I was going for the “good” stuff, the stuff I had no control over. Chocolate. Ice cream. Lollies. Chips. At the close of my first session, I vowed to take back control and to stop stress eating.
My Cycle of Emotional Eating
The first stage of emotional eating is the trigger, the event that sparks the emotions associated with stress eating. A trigger can be an experience, an event, or even a memory. Triggers were exceptional because they instantly transported me back into feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, depression, etc. regardless of how I was previously feeling.
Once triggered, since my coping mechanism was food, I felt an overwhelming urge to eat. The difficulty with addressing emotional eating is that I wasn’t always aware of what my triggers were. Moreover, I was responding by gravitating toward food to cope.
The third stage of emotional eating was a lack of control regarding food. Ever feel anxious and scarf a whole block of chocolate because “it’ll help me feel better”? Yeah, that was me. In this stage, I also found that I would eat even when I wasn’t hungry, all in an effort to mask the emotion associated with the trigger.
The last stage was immediate feelings of guilt and powerlessness over food. This stage also manifested as self-hate or extreme sadness and hopelessness.
The trouble with emotional eating is that it never solved the issue. I may have felt better in the short term, but the trigger and emotional responses were still there…unresolved. Thus, the cycle continued and suddenly I was struggling with other problems such as weight issues and feelings of powerlessness around food.
How I Stopped Stress Eating
Together with my therapist, we devised a plan to help manage my emotional eating. The first thing I focused on was identifying my triggers.
Identifying my emotional triggers required a heightened awareness of how my body reacts to certain experiences, events, people, memories, etc. A trigger can manifest in the body differently for people, but here are some of the most common responses:
Intense butterflies in your stomach or stomach pain
Uncontrollable shaking or dizziness
A rush of heat, especially in your head
Once I started paying attention to my bodily responses, I took three deep, calming breaths and analysed the trigger. I asked myself four questions. The first three were –
What am I feeling at this moment?
Sometimes the emotions were intense forms of anger, frustration, anxiety, or fear. The process of naming the emotion was crucial in allowing me to acknowledge and accept it. Validating my feelings was an important part of this process.
2. Who am I at this moment?
This question proved to be the most pivotal for me because it allowed me to take a deep dive into my psyche to see where the emotion originated. It forced me to determine if this was the adult me, the teenager me, or the young child me.
3. What happened?
Once I determined which me was being affected by the trigger, I was able to get curious about what happened and how the emotion originated. This is powerful because it helps start the process of transmutation.
Once I identified who I was in the moment and what I was feeling, I could finally ask myself the most important question: What do I really need in this moment? And that looked different in different situations. If it was anxiety, I made a commitment to move my body and work the jitters out of my nervous system. If it was depression, I made a commitment to call a loved one for support. If it was boredom, I focused on things that I love to do and did them. If I absent-mindedly ate, I sat in meditation and focused on if I was truly hungry or not. (And if I was hungry, then I made a commitment to choose a healthy option.)
I removed all the junk food and replaced it with what I felt were healthier options (but this doesn’t mean you have to). Milk chocolate bars were replaced with 80% or higher dark chocolate. Sodas and juices were placed with mineral water and fruit. Chips were replaced with nuts and vegetable chips, like kale chips. Ice cream was a tough one, I must admit. I got there in the end, replacing it with its sugar-free cousins. Admittedly, not as nice, but still managed to satiate the need. And the bonus? I didn’t eat nearly as much of it in one sitting!I also kept a food diary and journaled each time I ate and what I ate, every day. I also recorded how I was feeling when I ate. Through this process, I had a visual representation of my relationship with food, and it helped tremendously in my journey to overcome emotional eating.
How Quickly Can You Overcome Emotional Eating
It’s important I say this: I didn’t overcome emotional eating overnight. It was a journey of self-awareness, self-discovery, and self-healing. That journey looks and feels different for everyone.
It’s important that we don’t put a timeline on our health and wellbeing.
Also, success was measured in small increments: I managed to leave one row of chocolate one day and three days later, I’ve left half the bar. A month or so down the road, I’ve only eaten one row during the whole week!
My trick to overcoming emotional eating was holding space for myself. That meant being physically, mentally, and emotionally available for me. I learned very quickly that on this journey that it was important for me to be kind to who I was, so that I could continue on the path to who I was becoming.
Help for Emotional Eating
You may be like me and may need help to overcome your emotional eating. That’s OK. Some journeys aren’t meant to be travelled alone. I went the mental wellness route to help me stop emotional eating. But there are other options as well.
In addition to the DIY approach, you can also reach out to a dietitian that specialises in emotional eating. A nutritionist can help you develop a healthy relationship with food and find a healthy, well-balanced diet that’s right for you. A balanced diet doesn’t mean you have to give up the foods you love, I certainly didn’t. I did, however, adjust the healthiness of some of the foods that I love (e.g. dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate), but that was a personal choice. A dietitian can help you overcome your stress eating and develop a healthy relationship with the foods you love, including chocolate!
At Balanced Body Chiropractic, our resident dietitian Perri is passionate about helping her clients develop a healthy relationship with food, feeling in control around food, and being confident about their health and body. So, if you need help overcoming emotional eating, book a consultation with Perri today.
No content on this platform, regardless of consideration, can be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your physician or other qualified clinicians. Seek professional advice from your GP or preferred practitioner prior to making any drastic changes to your diet or addressing any mental health needs.