It’s one thing to know you have a pattern of emotional eating. It’s another thing to know what to do about it.
Our brains tend to default to the most obvious (and unhelpful) advice: just don’t do it. This is at best, a short-term solution, and at worst, a thought that leads to rebellion or frustration or even more overeating.
Self-help resources offer lists of suggestions to short-circuit emotional eating that are usually nothing more than distractions: keep your hands busy or, even less helpful: recognize that you aren’t really hungry and don’t “give in” to emotional eating.
Right. How’s that working for everyone?
Instead of one more to-do list of emotional eating alternatives (which you already know how to make), how about a collection of smart strategies you can use when the emotional eating urge strikes?
Here’s my resource list of 5 smart things to do instead of emotional eating.
- Pause. Don’t do anything – at least for a moment. The impulse to reach for something to eat is often a reaction – spurred on by your brain telling you that you need to do something in response to a feeling, or your fear that a tough feeling is on the way. It is impossible to be in control of any situation if you are reacting instead of acting intentionally. When you feel triggered to grab something to eat, or when you find yourself mindlessly scanning the refrigerator, practice the simple act of pausing. Take a beat. Take a breath. Come back into your body.
- Ask a question. Once you’re present in the situation (instead of mindlessly reacting), ask yourself a question. There is no one right question to ask about overeating or emotional eating or about feeling triggered. Just be curious. Asking and answering questions puts you back in the driver’s seat. You might ask: why am I standing at the refrigerator? Or am I hungry? Or what am I feeling right now? Or what do I know about what I need that isn’t food? Asking questions about what’s going on inside yourself helps you become more anchored and present which will allow you to make better decisions and choices.
- Give yourself time. These are new questions. It will take time to wrap your brain around them and to let the answers emerge and sink in. Think about it. If your brain is triggering emotional eating as a way to push down or ignore a feeling, or soothe you, or protect you from feelings that are difficult or painful, then your brain is also going to be quick to yell, “I don’t know!” when you ask curious questions about what you are feeling or needing. Give yourself time to practice moving from reaction mode to a more grounded and intentional space. Practice giving yourself five minutes before you do anything to consider the questions you’ve asked yourself.
- Don’t do. Be. Consider this: What if the urge to eat isn’t about food. What if it’s simply an urge to do something? What will happen if you do nothing? What will happen if you sit and breathe and stare at whatever feeling or sensation you’re having for the next five minutes? What will happen? Unless you’re feeding your emotions with thoughts and stories that keep them churning, your strong emotions will move through you like a wave. They won’t engulf you. Because you are bigger than your feelings. And every time you practice, your brain will get better at remembering this.
- Play the long game. Pick an approach and a set of strategies that are designed to free you from overeating patterns that don’t work for you. Stop staying stuck in cycles where self-control and willpower are destined to let you down. If the steps I’ve offered aren’t enough, consider getting more help. Your thoughts and beliefs and the stories you tell yourself are the biggest hurdles to creating freedom from emotional eating and overeating. The fastest way to change this is by working with someone who can help you see and move past your blind spots and who can show you how to do it differently. This is not a sign of weakness. My clients will tell you – it’s often the bravest and smartest thing you can do.