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How to overcome emotional eating

10.09.13 |

Food can bring comfort

It can certainly be very difficult to make changes in our eating habits when we have long work hours, financial strains, and other distressing things going on in our lives that conflict with our ability to care for ourselves… I mean who has time for self-care?!

Food can certainly fill that role. When we experience stressful events or negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, emptiness and sadness food can bring us comfort. I mean, they don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing do they?!

Food helps us feel better (temporarily) if we are feeling stressed or upset or tired. Because food can make us feel better it is really easy to develop the habit of seeking food to improve our moods. Over time, as neural pathways link the change in mood with the experience of eating food, the association grows stronger. Past sensory emotional associations with food stored in our brains are called “mental ghosts.”

Environmental cues (like being home after work) and emotional triggers (like stress and feeling tired) drive eating by stimulating our “mental ghosts.” When they’re triggered they bring forth our expectation that food will bring us pleasure and/or relief from distress; when we expect something to bring us pleasure and/or relief from distress, that expectation actually amplifies the rewarding value of food. Expectation then drives our action and the pursuit of food. Then the food makes us feel better which only strengthens the association of a change in mood with the experience of eating food

The vicious cycle

This is what we call a “vicious cycle.”

Now, there is absolutely something we can do to change this cycle however there isn’t really much we can do to stop this vicious cycle dead in its track. This is because this habit has developed over many years and will therefore take patient and persistent action, over time, in order to change it. In fact, trying to stop this cycle is kind of like trying to stop a runaway freight train. An impossible task that will only leave us frustrated, disappointed and completely flattened. Again, we can’t stop it dead in its track but we can change this habit over time. Here’s how you do it:

The most effective method is a three-pronged approach including Critical Perceptual Shift, Healthy Competing Behaviors and Planned Responses. Let’s go through each, one-by one.

First, Critical Perceptual Shift

First, Critical Perceptual Shift is when we change our emotional appraisal of food. As I said before we have an expectation that “food brings me pleasure and/or relief from distress.” In order to have success in changing we will need to change this expectation. Think of this as “retraining your brain” to think in a different way. We need to flip these expectations on their head by drawing towards what you want and pushing away from what is no longer desirable. Develop a statement that draws you towards healthy eating habits. Something like “I feel great when I choose a healthy way to cope with my emotions!” Next, develop a statement that pushes away from using food as a coping mechanism. Something like “Eating to comfort myself actually makes me feel more miserable.” Again, we are trying to “retrain the brain” to formulate new expectations and thought patterns. Every day, read your new expectations to yourself over and over again as many times as you can until you begin to truly believe these statement. This process is called counterconditioning.

Healthy Competing Behaviors

Next, Healthy Competing Behaviors are going to be those healthy coping skills and enjoyable activities that will replace food. You see, if this all comes down to seeking pleasure and/or relief from emotional distress then we will need to find alternative activities that accomplish this! My suggestion is to develop a “Menu” that lists any pleasurable activities that you can think of and any comforting activities that you can think of. This way you will have a list of options that you can use to obtain pleasure and/or relief from emotional distress. Right now you might feel like food is your only option to make yourself feel good. You can help this by brainstorming a list of other possible ways that you can experience pleasure and relief from emotional distress. Then you can look at his “Menu” and decide what would be the best options for you to try in place of food. Some examples of “Comfort Menu” items include: Deep Breathing, Meditation, Positive Imagery, Squeezing a Stress Ball, Giving Yourself a Hand Massage, Make a Stress Free Zone to Relax Within, Spend Time Outdoors in the Sun, Stretch, Take a Quick Walk, Listen to Your Favorite Song, Write Your Emotions Down, Light Scented Candles, Smell Citrus or Coffee, Talk to a Friend or Cuddle with a Pet. Identify as many options as you can and choose what makes the most sense to you.

Planned Responses

Finally, Planned Responses means having a set of rules designed to de-condition habitual responses to food. The shift from wanting to behave differently and actually doing so requires setting rules and practicing them until they become programmed behavior. A planned response should include the “cue” that sets off the emotional desire for food, the “reward” that food would provide, and a new “routine” that will change the automatic response.

You can use the items on your “Comfort Menu” to fill in as the new routine. This should look like this:

“When [identify the cue], I will [identify the new routine] because it provides me with [identify the reward].”

Here’s an example: “When I feel stressed, I will take a walk because it provides me with a sense of calm and peace of mind.”

Whereas the old automatic response would be to eat when feeling stressed, the new routine would be to take a walk. This planned response is a guideline for you to follow.

Write it down. Read it. Practice it. You may not be able to do it every time but that doesn’t matter. We are going for progress, not perfection. Change is a process, not an event. As long as you pay attention to this new planned response, think about it, try to do it and continue to practice it… then this new routine will eventually become your new automatic response!

Success breeds success

If you are able to create a Critical Perceptual Shift, a list of Healthy Competing Behaviors, and Planned Responses incorporating those new pleasurable and comforting activities you will experience two pretty incredible things. First, you will change your automatic responses which will increase your ability to resist cues (like emotional distress) to eat. This success will then breed more and more success. Second, the intensity of your desires for comfort food will begin to diminish and you will be able to find other things just as or even more rewarding than food was in the past.

As I said before, none of these things will stop that vicious cycle dead in its tracks but if you practice these things, over and over, until they become programmed behavior then you will have changed this habit! Remember to focus on making changes in your habits in order to get the weight loss results that you desire.