Emotional Eating Explained

Emotional eating is one of the most common reasons for excessive consumption of inadequate food. For some, it leads to weight gain; others suffer from health problems; and there are those that confront frustration and the inability to lead a productive work or creative life. For many, emotional eating creates a vicious circle that consists of guilt for the eating itself, and the guilt itself is addressed, for a fleeting moment, by… more food.

So why does this happen?

The source of emotional eating is almost always found in behavioural roots, and it manifests an inability to stay in the emotional present whilst creating a future challenge. In other words, emotional eating is a loop between our past, present and future.

As for the past: our past is fertile grounds for the sustainment of emotional eating. Some had parents who offered food at every expression of frustration or distress, while other received food as a prize for success and achievements. Some people who worked with me explained how food softened the difficulty they had to return to an empty house after school, and how they succumbed to the soothing sweetness of forbidden cookies or chocolate buns. Because even from a young age, when someone wished us to stop crying, they offered us food. And it usually wasn’t lettuce or an apple, but rather something sweet. And when the sweetness was no longer enough, more would be offered, thus educating us that large quantities of food will, eventually, sooth emotional pain. For most of us, the past provided an important and deeply engrained lesson – one that it is difficult to shed – that emotional challenges are a good time to eat,

 

and those of us who are deeply captivated by that lesson may feel a true, physiological hunger when facing emotional distress, unable to separate the distress from the hunger that stems from the lack of food. Therefore, one of the most common lessons of our childhood is that emotions are difficult to contain.

Well, isn’t that the case? Well, no, it is not.

Staying in the present - Our present consists of many emotions. In many cases, and if we are at a healthy place, if we allow an emotion to flood us completely, without fear or resistance, from the tips of our hair to the edge of our toenails, it will pass before too long.

But lessons from our past hinder such an experience. Many of us presume that an unpleasant emotion cannot be controlled or contained. If we allow it freedom, it will not only flood us – it will drown us.
Simply stated – unpleasant emotions are … unpleasant. And if we managed to find a way that is not destructive to limit their presence, we may as well resort to it, over and over, so as to limit their presence, and their effect.

Well, is that so bad? No, it’s not bad at all.

Emotions and the future - The issue with this ‘system’ is its inherent inefficiency. Emotions are a reaction to our needs. Needs that are satisfied will lead to pleasant emotions, while needs that are not satisfied will lead to emotions that are unpleasant. Unfortunately, dimming emotions does not affect the need that flooded them. If the need is not satisfied, or at least acknowledged, it will continue to send unpleasant signals through the emotion. In reality, emotional eating is the opening of an eternal, future circle, in which we will be forced to continue eating and soothing our emotions, until we manage to address our need or to overcome it.

 

Exercise: Think about the sources of your own emotional eating whilst satisfying your current desire. You may find that your answer leads to a physical sensation, a thought, or a feeling, or some combination thereof. I emphasised that the purpose of the exercise is not to withhold eating, but rather observation. For the current exercise, I suggest an additional layer: try to focus on the feeling. Allow it to arrive, name it. This is the start of the journey, for what is not named is less recognised in our consciousness. Begin by identifying the feelings that send you to eat, and only then, carry on eating.

Are you finding it difficult to name your emotions? Here is a useful site with an exhaustive list of emotions, and the feelings which arise from them.

Advanced exercise: An unpleasant emotion creeped on you? Stop everything, sit for a moment and allow it to fill yourselves. Succumb to being that emotion and permit it to infiltrate every cell in your body, without fear. Make place for its full development and be attentive to yourselves: how long are you engaged in the experience, and how do you feel when it passes?

Very advanced exercise: if you identified an unpleasant emotion, allowed it room, and as it exits, check to see what unsatisfied need was at its source. If you cannot satisfy the need, try at least to acknowledge its existence, and the fact that it cannot be satisfied. Check to see how this process makes you feel.

 

 

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