If you’re the type of person that eats your emotions I want to share a few tips with you that have helped me reduce the amount of emotional eating I do. In my first post on this subject (which you can find here) I described my struggle with boredom eating. In this post I will talk more about how I have dealt with my tendency toward stress eating (particularly distress, that mental breakdown, borderline anxiety attack type).
Here are some skills that have helped me stop stress eating.
- Practicing mindfulness.
You may have heard this one before. Don’t eat in front of the tv or shovel food into your mouth without taking a breather in between. If you regularly practice being present in the moment when you are eating and focus on the taste, texture, appearance, and how the food makes you feel, you will be more able to put those skills into practice the next time you want to stress eat.
Don’t just practice mindful eating, but practice mindfulness all around. Work on being more aware of your emotions day to day rather than drowning them out. When I stopped numbing and distracting myself from what I was feeling and instead stayed more in the present and aware of my feelings, I found that my emotions were no longer bottling up just to come exploding out in a “mental breakdown” that would cause me to stress eat.
2. Face fears and challenges, don’t run from or avoid them.
This goes along with the above idea of not letting problems bottle up. For me personally, working on interpersonal skills in DBT was the best way to do this as a large portion of stress I was feeling was from interpersonal issues I didn’t address out of fear of confrontation. But maybe your fears or challenges are different than mine. Whatever they are, don’t distract, numb, avoid, or ignore. These actions will inevitably cause larger issues down the line.
3. Exercise distress tolerance.
When our negative emotions are running high, the best thing to do is distract or remove ourselves from the situation. But those tactics can become counterproductive if we are doing them all the time. In distress tolerance, you describe what symptoms of an emotional response you experience when that emotion is low, medium, and high (rated 1 as lowest and 10 and highest). Then you work on sitting with the emotion from levels 1-8 and allowing yourself to experience those symptoms rather than numb or avoid them. For example, for me level 3 anxiety means racing thoughts and lots of fidgeting. Level 6 anxiety means a pounding heart, sweating, and breathing faster. Level 9 anxiety will have me hyperventilating, and I suppose level 10 would be passing out. In the past, I might distract or try to comfort myself (i.e. emotionally eat) at a level 3 in order to avoid getting to a level 10. In distress tolerance, you push your tolerance level. The higher your tolerance for negative emotions, the less you will feel compelled to get rid of them, and the less emotional eating you will do.
4. Identify core beliefs and thought distortions.
“I have no willpower.” “Food is the only thing that will make me feel better.” “I will feel this way forever.” “I’m not strong enough to cope with this emotion.” “I shouldn’t feel this way. I must get rid of this emotion.” These are some of the thoughts and beliefs I have had that lead me to emotional eating. Are these statements helpful? Are they true?
So how can we rephrase them? First, food isn’t the only thing that will make me feel better, even if it feels that way in the moment. I could take a bath, call a friend, watch a comedy show, or solve a puzzle (I like Sudoku). Even if these tactics don’t work, the emotion is not going to kill me. I can cope with high levels of physical pain, so I can cope with high levels of emotional pain. It is fine to feel this way. My emotions are valid. If my mind wants to have a breakdown for a moment let it. Sometimes our brains are like toddlers and they just need to scream and cry but then they will be ok. They need love and compassion just like a toddler does. Being in emotional distress is not a sign of weakness. Its not pathetic or bad. When you don’t always need to comfort yourself, you will seek less comfort food.
What type of emotional eating do you do?