You probably knew this one was coming from the beginning. So many of us call ourselves “emotional eaters”. However, we fail to call a spade a spade where our emotions are concerned. Emotional eating is still situational, non-hunger eating. Emotional eating is “learned helplessness”.
If you’ve determined that you aren’t physically hungry, all your physiological needs have been met, the social setting isn’t an issue, and nothing is triggering your senses, then it may be your emotions sending you to the fridge.
One of the plethora of reasons diets fail is because they do not take emotions into account. For so many people who struggle with non-hunger eating, this situational hunger is often the one left unaddressed, unless they want to spend thousands on therapy. Or, if it is addressed, you’re told to find some other way to ignore the emotion.
Even Josie Spinardi admits that her book doesn’t address emotional eating adequately. Most books on the topic do fall short, so I’m not going to pretend that I have the ultimate answer that will solve all of your emotional problems. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a book that does adequately address all emotional situations because every person is different. What I can offer is some insight in the hopes that we will find the courage to continue to address the issue of emotions and “learned helplessness”.
Emotions are so fickle, and food does seem to help, at least initially. The food temporarily allows us to drown the unpleasant emotion with a chemical reaction in our brain (much like alcohol or elicit drugs). This may feel great in the moment, but, as with all “drugs of choice” the effect wears off and leaves you not just with the original emotion, but with potential guilt too. This of course is yet another emotion you don’t want to feel… and you reenter the cycle for another go round.
We can confuse the need for food with both positive and negative emotional hunger. Which explains why we will sometimes eat when we are happy… and when we are sad. Of course, we are more likely to overeat due to negative emotions than positive ones.
Suriel points out that studies show, “the more joyous a person feels, the less likely that person is to support an addiction.” With emotional hunger, you aren’t addicted to the food, you’re addicted to the reaction you get from self-medicating with food. The emotion wheel pictured to the left has three core negative emotions and three core positive emotions. They are in direct contrast with each other on opposing sides of the wheel. So, “sad” would be the opposite of “joyful”, “scared” (or fearful) the opposite of “peaceful”… etc. So, one might combat a negative emotion with something that brings the opposing one. Although, we can’t combat anything of which we aren’t fully aware.
What am I feeling?
You know you’re feeling a negative emotion, but before you can adequately address it, you must first identify it. Just sitting in a heap on the sofa saying, “I feel bad”, doesn’t help. You could “feel bad” for any number of reasons. You can’t even begin to solve the problem if you don’t know what you’re feeling.
You can print out the wheel and use it as a reference to give a name to the emotion you feel. Sometimes, just simply realizing you’re “overwhelmed” can help you move away from the cheetos.
Why am I feeling this emotion?
If identifying the emotion hasn’t relieved the hunger, then you may need to ask yourself why you feel this way. You can follow the wheel to see that feeling overwhelmed may be connected to feelings of anxiety and fear. This may remind you of a situation that is causing these feelings. Maybe you feel anxious about an upcoming meeting. You fear you aren’t ready to give the presentation.
Again, identifying why you are overwhelmed (fear and anxiety over an upcoming meeting you aren’t prepared for), may alleviate the drive toward non-hunger eating. However, if the “what” and “why” don’t help, you will need to move on to the “how”.
How can I fix what is causing the emotion?
Ok, so by this point, most of the difficult work is done. Those first two questions can be emotionally exhausting to pinpoint at times. But, you’ve done it, and now you need a solution.
If it’s available, the very best option is to take action. With the work related presentation, you can make sure you’ve done everything you can to be ready. But what if you’ve already done that and you’re still anxious?
Well, that would be one of the times where you feel the emotion, accept that you’ve done all you can to prepare, and then pull a Scarlet O’Hara… “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” When Scarlet ran into an obstacle that she couldn’t fix right then, she would say, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” She knew she would “go crazy” if she let herself dwell on things outside of her control (even if she may have been the one who set the painful events into motion). Likewise, we need to let go of those things we have no control over. This will take practice, but if we can learn to “eat our emotions”, we can learn to let go of them too.
You have four options:
- Fix it now because it is within your power to do so. (offering an apology for hurt feelings instead of letting it fester for days)
- Decide on a future date when you can fix it (or that it will naturally be resolved). For example: If you discover a mistake on your bank statement, but the bank isn’t open again until Monday, you’ll have to let go of the worry and just accept that it will have to wait till you can resolve it.
- Accept and let go of emotional situations that are completely outside of your control (or sphere of influence). Maybe you are jealous that you aren’t 5’7″. Um, unless you know something I don’t, I doubt you’re going to be able to solve that issue.
- Eat. You know you aren’t hungry but you make a conscious decision to self-medicate with food. You know this is a temporary solution, but you are willing to accept the consequences.
Ka Boom (not the cleaner)
I should warn you, when you first begin to name and face your emotions, you may feel like you’ve just split the atom and all this scary stuff is coming out. You may feel like your emotions are completely uncontrollable. If you’ve spent years stuffing down your feelings, those emotions are still there, just waiting for the dam to break. So, when you overreact to a situation with the extreme version of an emotion (what should be mind frustration comes out as full on anger with screaming and gnashing of teeth), you have probably stuffed down that emotion in the past and it’s releasing with all the old baggage attached.
If this happens, and you don’t feel you can continue to allow your emotions to be expressed, I encourage you to see a therapist. This doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing them forever, it just may mean you need some help at the beginning when everything feels so magnified.
If you can allow your emotions (and warn your friends and family), and you can learn how to say “I’m sorry” when you overreact, then you will find that your emotions will take on a more manageable velocity… and they will be appropriate for the moment. The best part is that you will begin to be able to articulate how you’re feeling. You may also find that it is easier to talk out relationship issues because you are much calmer. You will likely find it takes more to rile you than in the past. Why? Because your perspective is changed, but also because you don’t have years of suppressed emotions just chomping at the bit to be let out.
Probably the very best part of learning how to deal with your emotions is how much lighter you will feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Remember, any progress on this journey is important. So, if you find that just naming the emotion is all you can handle right now, celebrate that progress. Being aware that you are eating because you are “angry” or “overwhelmed”… or whatever, is the first step toward obliterating emotional eating.
Now, we still have two more situational hungers to address, and since they both influence emotional hunger greatly, I think this is a good place to break.
Mental Situations is next…