The Perfect Storm
It was 2pm on a Monday. I had eaten perfectly up until then, but I could feel the pressure building to have a fun night with some mindless TV and junk food.
As the afternoon went on I could feel a pull towards food and letting go a little and enjoying myself. By the time dinner was there I had decided to make a trip to the grocery store.
I got a frozen pizza, a half gallon of cookies and cream ice cream, and a big bag of jelly beans. When I got home I started eating my way through all the food. I was full after 3/4 of the pizza. I was stuffed after eating half the ice cream. And I felt physically sick by the time I had finished the jelly beans.
As I was eating all this food I felt physically and emotionally horrible. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I felt frustrated. I promised myself as I was eating that this would be the last time I binged – that tomorrow I would start over and eat my planned meals. It’s easy to make that promise when you’re stuffing your face. But it’s even easier to say “one last time” when you really want to eat something you think you shouldn’t.
I wish I could say this was an isolated event. But this day had unfolded the same way every day for the last month. Every day I would start with the best of intentions only to feel a pull towards a nighttime binge. I’d promise to be better tomorrow. And the cycle would continue.
I’d eat upwards of 7-8 thousands calories a night and gain a pound a day for an entire month. By the time a month had passed and 30 pounds had been put on, the pain had finally reached a critical point that changes needed to happen. But even still, the random nighttime, weekend, or 30 day binges would occur.
You might not have a binge eating disorder like I did, although it’s much more common than people realize. Instead, most people have a similar issue, but to a lesser degree. This is known as emotional eating.
My bingeing started when I was in college when I first dove into bodybuilding culture. Suddenly food went from something I didn’t think much about, straight to it being a tool to control my body.
So I restricted calories and deprived myself of enjoyable foods by trying my best to eat a 100% whole foods diet. Because I didn’t think there was any way I could lose weight eating sugar, pizza, or any other stereotypical junk food.
The restriction and deprivation would build throughout the week, and it would culminate into a weekend binge. At the time, we called these days “cheat days”, which meant we just planned to eat whatever we wanted. It would kind of work since the other days had low enough calories that we could “afford” to be free on the weekend.
So began my binge eating. And many people are simply stuck right there. They purposely restrict and deprive themselves in an effort to control their body, and they create a slingshot-like effect that leads to nighttime, weekend, or occasion periods of out of control eating. It might not be a full out binge, but it’s mindlessly overeating in an out of control way.
In time, these binge episodes provided something else – an escape from the struggles of life and the uncomfortable emotions that were a part of it. It wasn’t something I was conscious of. All I knew was I was eating foods I didn’t want to be eating, and eating them in quantities that were more than desirable.
But subconsciously I was driven to these emotional eating episodes because they made me feel present. When I was eating, the depression of my past and anxieties of my future would temporarily go away. And the more I tried to smother and not feel the uncomfortable feelings stemming from my life, the more I would use food at night or on the weekends to cope.
And this is where most people are stuck with emotional eating. They have the perfect storm brewing. They have underlying physiological pressures because of purposeful caloric restriction and food satisfaction deprivation in order to control their body and self-worth. And that is combined with ineffective coping strategies when it comes to the perfectly natural but uncomfortable feelings they have.
Whatever coping strategy you use, the first part of the solution will always be the same – you have to learn to feel your feelings instead of trying to pretend like they aren’t there. You have to change the relationship you have with your emotions and stop smothering them any time you feel discomfort. When you do this you’re able to get down to the root of your emotional eating struggle and address it at the source.
Sitting With Your Emotions
We’ve been conditioned to believe that emotions are either good or bad. Emotions like frustration, stress, anxiety, anger, and jealousy are bad. And emotions like happiness, joy, love, and gratitude are good.
But like most of the things we’ve talked about, we only believe these things because of the meaning we’ve attached to them. An emotion is just an emotion. It is a signal from your body. It’s the beliefs we have of them that determine whether we think they are good or bad.
All emotions are good. Stress, anger, frustration – these are gifts in the sense that your body is showing you what you need to work on to feel in alignment. They only become bad emotions when you internalize the discomfort and let it become your identity.
If you can be self-aware enough to recognize what you are feeling, you can observe the discomfort, label it, and use it as a clue for getting down to the root of the emotion that is creating the pain.
But that’s the problem. These so-called negative emotions are uncomfortable. So we do everything we can to fight them, cover them up, and pretend like they don’t exist.
At the first signs of discomfort we reach for our coping strategies. And for most people, food is high up on their list of coping tools. It’s one of the most accessible and socially acceptable ways of coping with life’s discomfort.
Others might turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, codependency, arguing – nearly anything you can imagine. These are maladaptive coping strategies. In other words, they help you deal with the discomfort, but they create a secondary problem in the process.
Sometimes we even preempt the feelings of discomfort. We are so aware of the patterns of life that make us feel bad that we subconciously get ahead of the problem by coping with an emotion that hasn’t even manifested yet.
But despite the discomfort with the emotions you feel, you have to get used to sitting with that discomfort instead of running to smother it at the first hint of it emerging.
We do this by changing our relationship with our emotions. As I said before, emotions, whether they are stereotypically good or bad, are simply signals from your body that its needs are either being met or they are not.
Sitting with the discomfort allows you to identify this emotion and its underlying unmet need. It helps you solve the problem by addressing the root cause of the discomfort, instead of covering it up with food and creating a secondary problem. The latter throws you into a downward spiral that strengthens each time you feel the emotion. While the prior allows you to fix the problem by making yourself whole again.
Your goal when you feel the pull to reach for food to cope is to pause. Sit with the discomfort. Identify the emotion you’re feeling. And then determine which one of your underlying needs aren’t being met.
Interestingly enough, most people who sit with the discomfort report that the feeling dissipates on its own in time. And in the process they weaken the grip the emotion has on them because they are no longer afraid of feeling it. As the feeling comes up in the future, it passes through them instead of them latching onto it and internalizing it. They no longer become the feeling. They just recognize it, acknowledge it, and use it as a tool for personal growth.
Facing Your Problems Head On
One day I really decided to tackle not just my binge eating struggle, but also my marijuana addiction and every other maladaptive coping strategy I was using to deal with the uncomfortable feelings of my life.
This wasn’t the first time I had tried to quit these things. Like most people, I’ve tried to quit bad habits over and over again, only to go right back to these coping strategies when things inevitably got hard.
Something I noticed was that every time I tried to quit a bad habit, my life suddenly seemed to get more difficult. Without fail, I’d go into this process with the best of intentions, and then life would throw all kinds of problems at me. Financial struggles would pop up. The kids would have issues to deal with. Work got stressful.
So I’d rationalize that now was not the best time to work on this stuff. Giving up my coping strategies, even though they were causing me harm, was more painful than the behavior itself.
But all this changed one day when I had one of my biggest breakthroughs ever. I had been seeing my situation and struggle wrong all along. Here I was thinking that by some random chance, my life was always getting more difficult the moment I decided to do the work and quit my negative coping strategies.
I thought that life was just picking on me and was deciding these were perfect times to go ahead and throw some big problems at me. I thought I was the victim – thinking “why me and why now?”
When I saw the truth, it changed my life. The truth is I didn’t suddenly start having problems the moment I addressed my emotional eating and stopped coping using food. I wasn’t the recipient of some timed plot by the universe to make my life difficult the moment I wanted to get better.
What I realized was that these problems I was suddenly experiencing? They had always been there. I just didn’t see or feel them because I was stuffing them down using food, drugs, and other behaviors. When I removed these coping strategies, my blinders and emotional dampeners came off and I suddenly felt and experienced all the problems I had been ignoring all that time.
Recognizing this, the next time my uncomfortable feelings came up, I didn’t run to food. I didn’t run to pot or alcohol or any other of my usual tools. I just sat with them. I sat with the discomfort. I felt.
Was it painful? Of course it was. I had become extremely sensitized to discomfort from all the years using these coping strategies. But I sat with the discomfort anyways. And in doing so, I learned about myself, what it was I was really needing, and healed.
Look… you might not have a binge eating disorder. And you might not have a struggle with substances either. But most people do have something they rely on to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of life. And rarely are these coping strategies healthy for you.
Emotional eating comes in many shapes and sizes. But it’s rooted in using food to cope with discomfort. So the solution is always going to be the same – sit with the discomfort, identify your emotions, explore your underlying needs that are currently being unproductively met using food, and work towards meeting them directly. When you do that, your actual problems get solved, and there’s no discomfort to even deal with. You addressed the problem at its source instead of slapping bandaids on it using coping tools.
Your Unmet Needs
Emotional eating is a form of addiction. That statement will be denied by a lot of people – professionals included. But I continue to argue my case.
They will say that you can’t be addicted to something (food) that you need to survive. The only problem here is I’m not talking about a physical addiction. While food most definitely creates a physiological pleasure response, and some foods and people have this response more than others, I don’t necessarily think of this as addiction.
But if we’re being technical here, I could argue that everyone is physically addicted to food. After all, what happens when you try to abstain from food? Your body’s chemistry changes, you go through a form of withdrawal, food-seeking behaviors increase, and you eventually eat. Call it what you want – physical dependency, maybe. Point is, food has power and influence.
However, my case for emotional eating being an addiction has more to do with it being a psychological addiction. It is a maladaptive coping strategy to an underlying unmet need. And when you keep coming back to food time and time again knowing it’s hurting you, can’t help yourself, and can’t stop when you want to – well… that’s an addiction.
Addiction comes in many shapes and sizes. It has different degrees of intensities. But it comes down to someone engaging in behaviors that feel out of their control in order to cope with emotional discomfort resulting from underlying unmet needs.
Emotional eating might be your current go-to strategy for coping with discomfort, but these psychological addictions can literally take the form of anything – shopping, gambling, sex, alcohol, drugs, dieting, exercise, arguing, co-dependency, biting pencils… literally anything you can imagine.
None of these things are necessarily bad in isolation. But when they become patterns, and they create secondary problems in your life, and you can’t stop, then you have a psychological addiction.
Why is this important? Because if you understand this is the root of your emotional eating struggle, you can start addressing the problem effectively. You will stop using surface-level calorie restriction in an attempt to control the overeating. Because eating less isn’t the solution to eating too much. Just like how not drinking isn’t a substitute for drinking.
You have to get to the root of the struggle – your underlying unmet needs that are creating the uncomfortable emotions, that are driving the undesirable coping strategy – eating (or whatever coping strategy you’re using). Otherwise, if the root problem doesn’t get addressed, there will always be pressure to cope.
As human beings be have needs. These needs have to be met in order for us to survive both physically and psychologically. Unfortunately, many people meet these needs in a destructive way. One, because they don’t know how to meet that particular need in a healthy way, and two because they don’t even know what the need is. A lifetime of subconscious maladaptive coping has numbed them to their needs.
That’s why sitting with the discomfort when you feel the pull to whip out your typical coping strategy is so important. This is what allows you to “see” and feel the emotion and identify the need that is driving the discomfort.
These needs are plentiful and unique to the person. But they could be your need for safety, love, understanding, support, entertainment, self-expression, joy, nature, growth, purpose, creativity, sleep, touch, relief, autonomy, play, challenge, connection, intimacy, or movement.
The list goes on and on. When one or more of these needs isn’t being met, we feel emotional discomfort. You might feel upset, depressed, lost, anxious, stressed, sad, mournful, frustrated, agitated, mad, resentful, or even bored.
Most of us weren’t raised to effectively handle these emotions, so instead of directly meeting our underlying needs, we cope. Unfortunately, our coping strategies aren’t the best either and we reach for what’s familiar, easy, accessible, and socially acceptable. Food is an easy solution. And emotional eating takes root.
As you eat, these uncomfortable feelings disappear for a bit. But like with all maladaptive coping strategies, they create secondary problems and also don’t solve the first one – meeting your unmet need.
If you just try to stop emotionally eating without meeting the need, then that need will be met elsewhere. It will be channeled into another maladaptive coping strategy. Until you solve the problem at the source, you will always be reactively coping to emotional discomfort.
So sit with the discomfort. Feel the emotion. Identify the underlying unmet need. And work on addressing it directly. Yes, it might take time to meet this need effectively. You might have a lot of work to do or past trauma to overcome. But once you learn to meet your needs, the drive to cope dissipates, and you live a more full life experience.
Learning How to Cope
Not all your needs are going to be able to be met right away. Some unmet needs can be fixed in a moment or a day. While others will take time to work towards fulfilling.
You might need to have several conversations with someone in order to work through issues. You might need the assistance of a therapist. You might need time to experiment with ideas in order to find the right behavior that best honors your needs.
The key is to make sure you’re at least working towards fulfilling your needs, even if they don’t get immediately met. That is the part most people neglect, so they become overly dependent on coping strategies to get them from eating episode to eating episode.
Your approach to emotional eating will require two parallel paths. One is working towards directly meeting your needs. And the other is finding productive coping strategies while you’re doing that.
With coping strategies we have both proactive and reactive types. Most people are focused on reactive coping, also known as what you do after you start feeling emotional discomfort.
And within reactive coping we have adaptive and maladaptive strategies. Maladaptive would be the strategies that cause secondary problems. This includes emotional eating, but also includes any other behaviors that create secondary problems. And adaptive coping strategies will be behaviors that help you self-soothe without making your situation worse. The list of adaptive coping strategies is long, but includes things like going for a walk, calling a friend, seeing a movie, getting a massage, working out, reading a book, deep breathing, etc.
Your job is to experiment with various behaviors until you find one that helps you get through the moment in a productive way, all while remembering that the primary goal is to be working towards meeting your underlying needs so that coping isn’t necessary in the first place.
And then you have proactive coping strategies. These are behaviors you bake into your day right now, that better help you manage emotional discomfort later. They are behaviors that build emotional resilience, so that relatively speaking, the same level of emotion doesn’t cause you as much discomfort, which results in less of a need to cope.
Proactive coping strategies include things like exercise, sufficient sleep, meditation, or engaging in flow state activities that bring you joy. These behaviors refuel your willpower and make you better equipped to handle life’s stressors.
If you combine productive proactive and reactive coping strategies with vigilance in directly meeting your needs, your drive to emotionally eat will be dramatically reduced or even eliminated altogether. At the very least, the frequency and the intensity of the episodes will be greatly diminished, and you will be able to check the box on yet another aspect of healing your relationship with food.
The 3 Forms of Emotional Eating
When people think of emotional eating they picture a scenario in which they or someone is feeling stressed or bored or some other uncomfortable emotion, and they turn to food to soothe themselves. And more times than not, they eat more than what they’d like, which creates a secondary problem they then have to solve.
While this is absolutely a form of emotional eating, it isn’t the only form of emotional eating. There are actually three different types of emotional eating, and most people have done all three. Interestingly enough, only two of these are actually problems. So let’s take a look at all three.
First we have what I just spoke about – eating to soothe to the point that it creates a secondary problem. You’re stressed from a day at work, sit down in front of the TV that night, and eat away your feelings. Unfortunately, you eat more than you needed, and now you’re left with another problem – your body.
So you start the next day off dieting hoping to make up for the mistake you made last night. But this worry about your body and gaining weight just stresses you out more, which leads to more emotional eating. You get caught up in a downward spiral and struggle to get out of it.
Your approach to overcoming this form of emotional eating was what I laid out in this chapter. You sit with the discomfort so that you can feel your emotions, and then identify and meet your underlying unmet needs that are creating these uncomfortable emotions. And while you work on meeting these needs, you engage in more productive coping strategies (proactive and reactive).
The second form of emotional eating is when you use food to soothe, yet it doesn’t create a secondary problem. That’s right… not all forms of emotional eating are bad! Food is one of many tools you can use to regulate your nervous system (it’s one of its purposes anyways), and if it helps you without creating more issues – it’s a productive form of emotional eating.
I once had a client who was struggling with emotional eating. Every night she was digging into chocolate and feeling really guilty about it. We worked on overcoming her problem for a long time, but we didn’t have much luck.
As her coach, this was my fault. Not because I couldn’t help her overcome her emotional eating struggle, but because I made the mistake of making a huge assumption – that her emotional eating was even a problem in the first place.
On one random coaching call some new information came to light. Here I was thinking she was digging into heaps of chocolate and making herself sick. But in reality, she was only eating 1-2 small squares of a chocolate bar!
I was blown away, as I was projecting my own emotional eating and binge eating experience, and assumed others were just eating to the point of physical discomfort. But she wasn’t. She was only having 50ish calories worth of dark chocolate at the end of the day.
That was the first time it really clicked that not all emotional eating was bad. And in fact, sometimes it’s good. If a 50 calorie investment helps you regulate your nervous system, and doesn’t create a secondary problem, then that’s a useful way of eating.
I do the same thing every night when I have a 100 calorie greek yogurt cookies and cream bar, or a small bowl of cereal. I’m not always hungry, but I enjoy having something as I decompress from the day and watch TV. This is a useful form of emotional eating for me as it regulates my nervous system, keeps me consistent the rest of the time, and improves my overall life experience.
And finally, we have our third form of emotional eating, which I call “emotional non-eating.” When people are feeling overwhelming emotions, one of two things usually happens – they either eat to soothe, or they don’t eat much at all. This latter behavior is still emotional eating because you are eating in an emotional way that is out of alignment with your body’s needs.
That’s what all unproductive forms of emotional eating have in common – you don’t eat in a way that meets your body’s needs, and it leads to a secondary problem.
Now, this form of emotional eating can be very difficult to overcome. When you lose your appetite because of life struggles, it can be hard to force yourself to eat. The framework I outlined above still applies. However, it’s also going to take some gentle reminding that taking care of yourself by eating in a way that satiates, satisfies, and nourishes you will help you best deal with whatever life is currently throwing at you. In the meantime, a great deal of self-compassion needs to be part of the equation.
This is an unintentional form of emotional non-eating. Very rarely do we just decide to not eat. It’s usually because of great loss or pain that we lose our appetite. However, we also undergo intentional forms of emotional non-eating. And this is best known as dieting.
In an effort to distract ourselves from some of the pains we’re feeling in our life, or to feel a sense of control, many people take up dieting. Obviously, dieting isn’t a form of overeating – at least not in the short term. It usually does lead to a cause and effect scenario of restriction and then overeating later though. But in the short-term, we try to make ourselves feel better by restricting calories and depriving ourselves of satisfaction in our diet.
Dieting does not meet your needs. It doesn’t meet the needs of your life that you’re attempting to mask over, nor does it meet your nutritional needs. Dieting attempts to round-about make your problems better by controlling the shape of your body, which doesn’t work.
The solution? You continue working towards ditching Diet Culture and you plug yourself into the Ideal Body Formula™. And while you do that, you work through the emotional eating framework of sitting with your emotions, identifying and meeting your unmet needs, and finding productive ways to cope.