Breaking Free from Emotional Eating How to Stop

Emotional Eating Overview

For many people, the biggest obstacle to shedding extra pounds or eating more healthfully is emotion-based eating. Emotional eating can sabotage even your most well-intentioned efforts.

According to the American Dietetic Association, many people eat for emotional reasons. “Emotional eating,” typically triggered by stress and anxiety, too often leads to overeating and/or making poor food choices. One recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders compares the daily journals kept by a group of normal-weight women, half of whom were binge-eaters. Those who engaged in binge-eating rated daily hassles as significantly more stressful than those who did not.

A key influence on emotional eating, however, is not just negative or stressful events, but rather it’s people’s response to them. People who are typically less thrown off by stress tend to focus on how they want to constructively deal with a negative situation or they simply put it aside and move on. Those who tend to experience more disruption due to negative situations are more inclined to stay focused on the problem, mentally replaying a distressing situation over and over and over again.

Traumatic experiences are extraordinarily stressful events that can destroy a person’s sense of stability, security and control. Whether the threat is physical or emotional, occurs as the result of ongoing abuse or neglect, or follows in the wake of a single overwhelming event, it can have a devastating impact. Any situation that causes someone to feel overwhelmed or unsafe can be traumatic.

The following factors can turn a stressful event into a traumatic experience:

  • Occurred in childhood
  • Intentional cruelty
  • Occurred without notice
  • Feeling powerless
  • Occurred repeatedly

Trauma-related problems such as flashbacks, nightmares, intentional self-harm and depression can be extremely disruptive to the trauma sufferer and their loved ones. In some cases, traumatic events are so intense the trauma sufferer disconnects from reality and loses his or her ability to cope in a healthy way.

How Do You Cope With Stress?

Experts say that people whose healthy-eating goals are often disrupted by emotions can benefit from finding new strategies to help them respond more effectively to stressful situations. A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that people gave in to eating temptations every time they didn’t have a strategy to deal with stressful situations. But when they responded with some form of either positive thoughts or actions, they were able to beat those temptations 50% to 60% of the time.

Research indicates that individuals who respond to a negative situation with both positive thoughts and constructive action are able to avoid emotion-based eating 85% of the time. Examples of positive thinking include reminding yourself that the problem is not really as big as it seems, that you can handle it, or by brainstorming different approaches to the problem to find the most effective solution. Action responses might include attempts to fix a problem by asking a friend, family member, or associate for their advice, or through calming and soothing yourself by taking a walk, listening to music, or deep breathing.

Symptoms of Emotional Eating

People react to traumatic events in a variety of ways. Symptoms may last as long as months or years after a stressful event.

Symptoms of emotional trauma may include:

  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Self-Blame
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawing from friends or family
  • Feeling numb

Emotional trauma can also result in physical symptoms such as insomnia, aches and pains, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, rapid heartbeat and being easily startled. These feelings may come and go, and may resurface after a triggering event. A sound, smell or situation can also bring back memories of the traumatic experience.

If you or someone you love is showing any of the following signs of emotional trauma, treatment can help:

  • Having a hard time functioning in daily life
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Experiencing intense fear, depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Struggling with nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoiding people, places or things that remind them of the trauma

What’s Behind the Hunger?

Nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in their book Intuitive Hunger, note that many people use food as a means to distract themselves from emotions ranging from simple boredom to frustration to elevated anxiety. Tribole and Resch recommend differentiating between biological hunger and other urges to eat, and trying to identify the feelings and needs behind non-hunger urges to eat. For example, sometimes an unmet need for nurturing can be satisfied by spending time with a friend, playing with a pet, or soaking in a tub.

Tribole and Resch emphasize that taking time out to eat is often more socially acceptable than taking time out simply because we need a break. They suggest learning to acknowledge that simply taking a break is quite appropriate when we need rest or distraction or refreshing relief from routine. If you’re not hungry, use breaks to read, nap, take a walk, or telephone a friend.

Causes of Emotional Eating

Trauma can be caused by any event that strikes feelings of fear, sadness or extreme stress, including:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce or significant breakup
  • Injury
  • Accident
  • Humiliating experience
  • Surgery
  • Life-threatening illness or disability

Trauma is highly individualized. What is overwhelming to some may be manageable to others. Being under extreme stress or having experienced a number of past losses or traumas can make it more difficult to cope with a difficult situation.

Trauma that occurs in childhood can be particularly damaging. Illness, bullying, abuse or an unstable home environment may teach a child that the world is a dangerous place. They may struggle to outgrow these fears and insecurities as they become adults. Individuals who suffered from trauma during childhood are more likely to experience trauma in adulthood.

Curb Emotional Eating Habits and Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Research shows that emotional eating can be a significant source of excess calories. Excess calories can result in overweight or obesity, which can increase the risk for several forms of cancer as well as diabetes and other serious health problems. The American Institute for Cancer Research emphasizes the need to choose portions appropriate to our individual needs and to avoid popular “super-sized” foods. But remember, emotional eating is controlled not only with healthier foods or smaller portions, but by getting whatever help and support you need to learn how to handle non-hunger urges to eat without actually turning to food for temporary solace.

Treatment For Emotional Eating

Recovering from emotional trauma takes time, but with treatment and support, individuals can experience renewed hope. The goals of trauma recovery include:

  • Manage difficult emotions without engaging in self-destructive behaviors
  • Identify and change unhealthy patterns
  • Reconnect actions and feelings
  • Address traumatic memories
  • Develop positive ways to connect with others
  • Create a long-term plan for managing stress

There are a number of innovative therapies used to treat trauma such as:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses eye movements and cognitive-behavioral therapy to recall traumatic memories and resolve them.
  • Somatic Experiencing helps the patient concentrate on their body and release tension and energy in a physical way.

Treatment for trauma also requires developing healthy ways to cope with grief and loss. Some of the most effective interventions include cognitive-behavioral therapy and animal-assisted therapy (e.g., equine therapy or canine therapy).

CRC offers programs for individuals suffering through the emotional and psychological effects of trauma, as well as any co-existing disorders. Our programs utilize a full spectrum of integrative therapies that can assist survivors of trauma, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), acupuncture, somatic experiencing, psychopharmacological interventions, breathwork therapies, equine-assisted therapy, neurofeedback, and a range of other innovative techniques.

With the help of experienced trauma specialists, trauma survivors can process deep-seated feelings of grief, guilt, hopelessness, fear and despair, and rebuild healthy, satisfying relationships. For thousands of survivors, treatment is the key to putting traumatic experiences in the past and moving forward with the healing process.