By Jessica Gilliland, MS, LAMFT
At one point or another, all of us have turned to food to deal with uncomfortable emotions. Some of these instances are minor, like grabbing a bag of chips to munch away the stress of a difficult workday or downing a milkshake to feel better after an upsetting event. Chocolate chips are my traditional pick-me-up treat. It makes sense that we often turn to food for comfort, or to numb emotions. Eating can feel good, and it is meant to be a pleasurable experience. However, when turning to food becomes a compulsive, habitual means of coping, and when emotional eating (eating to deal with feelings rather than to satisfy physical hunger) starts to become uncontrollable, the consequences can be physically and emotionally distressing. If you have ever found yourself swept up in an eating binge without knowing how to stop yourself, here are a few tips that may be useful for interrupting a negative interaction with food.
Sometimes a quick check-in with your body, when you feel the urge to binge, can be very effective. Pay attention to how you feel, and try to notice if the signs of physical hunger are present in your body. Do you feel hunger pangs, emptiness, or growling in your stomach? Are you feeling lightheaded or irritable? If you are physically hungry, then by all means, eat! Responding to physical hunger cues before you feel ravenous can actually help you regulate your eating. If you are not physically hungry, give yourself a chance to reconsider your choice to put food into your body when you might not need it, then think about why you might be reaching for food. Could it be boredom, habit, emotional distress, loneliness, or some other reason? These are often starting points for a binge. For more helpful strategies for recognizing hunger and fullness cues, see the Appetite Awareness Workbook.
Perhaps you know very well that you are not physically hungry, but are instead trying to avoid or numb an uncomfortable emotion. Before stuffing your emotions down with food, try to take a moment to name the emotion you are experiencing. Perhaps “disappointment,” “helplessness,” “loneliness,” or “shame” is driving your craving for comfort. Identifying the discomfort you feel can give you a chance to take care of what hurts, rather than going for the “quick fix” binge that will likely leave you feeling worse off than you started. For more tips on coping with emotions without turning to food, I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
At times, what you may be seeking through binge eating is comfort and connection. When connection seems out of reach, food can become an easily accessible caretaker. Eating while alone can also make it easy for compulsion to take over. When you feel the momentum of a binge beginning to sweep you away, reach out to find connection somewhere. That may mean going into a room where other people are, calling someone, making a spiritual connection through prayer or meditation, connecting to nature by walking or looking outside or even connecting with your own body by noticing your breathing or the temperature of the air on your skin. As you begin to consciously choose to connect, you may notice yourself feeling more grounded, calm, content, and no longer in need of the numbing effects of a binge.
These are just a few tools that may be helpful in managing the urge to binge eat. Frequent compulsive or emotional eating can feel like an impossible obstacle to overcome, but it is possible to heal your relationship with food and eating.