I’m guessing this scenario is familiar to you:
You get some bad news. It could be something as innocuous as some negative feedback at work, or as devastating as finding out that a loved one is ill.
Big or small, what matters is that the news triggers you—makes you feel sad, angry, or helpless. And then, instead of confronting those overwhelming emotions—I mean, who wants to feel pain?—you reach for something that soothes you.
For me, and maybe for you, too, that something is food.
And not steamed kale, either. No, I go for sweet, starchy, fatty stuff, like muffins or cake or even toast with nut butter and maple syrup. And it tastes so good—so comforting—that I’ll have a little more, and then a little more, and then something else too, and before I know it, I’m way past full.
Of course, if you only do this a few times to cope in the short term, well, no biggie.
However, this summer, the mother of one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with cancer and passed away not long after. My friend’s mom was a wonderful lady, and I was heartbroken for my friend and her family. I felt utterly helpless; other than cooking and being an ear to listen, there was little I could do. What’s more, I’ve since come to realize, it confronted me with the knowledge that someday, I’ll lose my own mom.
Instead of accepting all that and moving on, though, I ate. And then I ate some more. I got a little relief during my trip to the beach, but upon coming home, I started right back up again. And going back to school again at the age of 33, while a blessing, simply added fuel to the fire.
Unfortunately, repeated bouts of overeating were wreaking havoc with my health, from heartburn to weight gain. I knew I had to change.
So while I’m still struggling a bit, by trial and error, I’m doing a lot better. Given how much I’ve wrestled with this, I wanted to share 6 things that have helped me crawl back out of the emotional overeating hole. (That said, if you think you’re dealing with full-blown binge eating disorder, please don’t try to tackle it alone! Reach out to a doctor or therapist who can help you recover your happy, healthy self.)
6 Tips for Tackling Emotional Overeating
1. Have a meltdown
Then have another one, if need be. As it turns out, one of the reasons I was turning to food was because I was bottling up my sadness and fear and frustration. Well, one afternoon I called my mom, and though it wasn’t really my plan, proceeded to cry my eyes out for an embarrassingly long time. We then had a conversation that I will cherish for the rest of my life, about hard things like grief, and sadness, and moving on. And the compulsion to overeat left. Of course it came back later, but it wasn’t as overpowering, feeling more like a habit to break than an unbreakable command to eat. (You emotional eaters know what I’m talking about.) And if I need to have another meltdown, well, that’ll be okay too.
2. Talk to a friend
While giving myself permission to cry it out was helpful, having my mom “hold my hand” over the phone as I lost it was a healing gift. Find a trusted friend, a family member, or a therapist and talk out whatever’s bothering you. Accept the gift of that person’s compassion. I find that eating feels a little less compelling after sharing my problems with someone who cares.
3. Let go of perfection
Once my emotions were a little less intense, I could start the work of breaking the binge habit. And my first move was to throw perfectionism right out the window. (Hard for me!) I decided to worry less about ideal food choices and more about just getting out of the overeating cycle. Once the cycle has been broken for a little while, I’ll get back fully to my regularly scheduled whole-food, plant-based diet. In the meantime, if luring myself out of the kitchen with the promise of a piece of pumpkin bread and a study hour at a coffee shop heads off a bender, then in my book, the unhealthiness of the treat is more than outweighed by the benefit of not eating my face off. Which leads me to #4…
4. Tackle one vice at a time
This may sound ludicrous, but I tried to break my emotional overeating habit and my coffee habit at the same time (right when I was starting classes, no less) with predictably disastrous results. So while some people may be able to go cold turkey on everything, I am not one of those people. (My gosh, if I was, I wouldn’t be emotionally eating in the first place!) If you aren’t one of those people either, please consider carefully before setting yourself up with overambitious goals.
5. Avoid your trigger zones
Since I’m a freelancer and in school, I do much of my work at home. However, home is also where the unlimited food is (bad combo). So recently, I’ve taken to working at the library or coffee shop, especially during my late-afternoon “witching hour,” when snacking is most likely to turn into a food bender. Surprisingly effective!
6. Get moving
This may be a no-brainer, but exercise is mood-stabilizing, lowering levels of stress hormones and boosting the production of endorphins, your body’s own feel-good chemicals. Exercising almost always helps me feel a little more in control, a little more sane–and a little less likely to lose it on the trail mix in the cupboard.
Now I want to hear from you: Do you ever struggle with emotional overeating? What helps you break the cycle?
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