If You Overeat When You’re Mad or Frustrated | TMOHP Episode 050

If you eat when you feel angry, frustrated, or powerless, you aren’t alone. Not only is this a type of overeating that often has deep roots (it can be a pattern that goes way back), the very nature of these emotions can set you up to operate on autopilot. Strong emotions can put your brain into reaction mode - and this isn’t a situation that supports choosing the new habits with food you may be trying to build.

If you’re flooded with feelings of anger or powerlessness, your brain (and your thinking) is likely to take you in the opposite direction. Once you understand this you can use the four steps I’m going to share today to take your power back from overeating and to chart a new course when you’re feeling mad or upset - one that doesn’t involve reflexively reaching for something to eat.

In this episode:

  • 4 steps to stop emotional eating when you’re mad or frustrated
  • Why it can be physiologically difficult to prevent emotional eating if you don’t know these steps
  • Why it’s so important to do the steps in order
  • What to do when you can’t control the situation (spoiler alert: this isn’t uncommon)

Featured on the show:

Episode Transcript

Let's talk about the overeating that happens when you're mad or when you're frustrated. Last week's episode was all about when rebellion is sabotaging you and causing you to overeat. And I used a phrase from a quote from a client about how she was so mad and frustrated that she ate at the person. “I was so mad and frustrated, so I ate.”

Ever have that feeling? Ever find yourself eating because you feel powerless or frustrated or angry? I've been there. And a member of the Your Missing Peace program summarized this whole issue in a question that she shared with me that I thought would be a great jumping off point for this episode.

She said “The other day I was on the phone with a company who had not credited my account with a refund that they had promised. I did not get a refund. And I was looking at the original charge on my bank statement and I'm on the phone. And the representative kept telling me that the payment never came out of my account. And I told her I'm looking right at it. I'm looking at the debit. She never got it, she said.” When I hung up the phone a little bit later, I was so angry and I went straight to the refrigerator and I got a pint of ice cream and I ate it. I was in the refrigerator getting the ice cream without allowing myself to think about what I was doing.

Then she asked, “How can I short circuit this? How can I interrupt this? I really dislike being told that I'm not seeing what I'm looking at on my bank statement. And I know that anger is a tough one for me. And it's something that really triggers me.” If you can relate- this episode is for you. 

We cannot create a world where you are not going to feel angry. That is called being human. But we can talk about how you can prevent emotional eating when you're feeling frustrated or angry, or when you feel powerless. There are four steps I want to go through with you. Four steps that I think are going to be really helpful. But before I do that, I want to highlight the one key strategy that my client who asked the question (we’ll call her Meg) is already using. Because it's really important that you see this. In asking that question, she was doing something different instead of getting lost in self blame or guilt or frustration with herself, for what she was doing. She's using that experience that didn't go well, eating the pint of ice cream, to learn something that will help her succeed. She's being curious. 

If you only start practicing one new strategy, this is the one to start practicing. Because your progress toward creating freedom from overeating or changing your eating habits is never going to be perfect. Contrary to what diet culture may have taught you. You don't have to get it perfect. And there's nothing wrong with you. It is only human to make mistakes or to do things and realize that you were moving in the wrong direction. The most powerful thing that you can do is look for the learning in the moments that don't go well. It's not beating yourself up, it's not telling yourself that now you have to start over and now you just have to be stronger or you have to line up everything in your life so that it will go perfectly next time.

It will never always be perfect. The strategy that is going to take you so much further is curiosity. Asking yourself, what happened here? What could I do differently next time? Why didn't that work? Those are the questions that are going to exponentially increase your success if you ask them. And if you ask them with compassion instead of blame and guilt. And starting from a place where you have already decided it is all your fault and you should have just been a different person in that moment. We always want to start with curiosity and compassion and we're going to do it imperfectly. But every time you can catch yourself and bring yourself back to that place of moving out of self blame and moving into curiosity, you're going to advance yourself and you're going to move closer to the relationship with food that you want to have. I promise. 

That was an important little tangential detour kind of, but it's an important foundation to these four steps that I want to talk about. Four steps that you can start practicing imperfectly. If you find yourself eating, when you're mad or frustrated or feeling out of control. The first step is I know easier said than done, but even thinking about this step and practicing it, when you catch yourself is going to be helpful. Step number one is to stop. 

When you're angry or frustrated or feeling powerless, it is quite likely that you are also emotionally activated and being emotionally activated is not just a phrase, it affects your brain chemistry. Your brain chemistry is affected when you get very emotional and reactive, it affects the way you process information. You are in reaction mode, which is a prime setup for autopilot behavior or mindless behavior. Old entrenched behaviors, like emotional eating. It's reacting without thinking. So after you hang up the phone or walk out of the meeting or exit, whatever the frustrating situation was, practice pausing just long enough to allow the prefrontal cortex, the smart part of your brain that's going to help you choose a helpful next step. You need to pause long enough to let that part of your brain engage, because if you don't if you just keep right on going with the flow and reacting, you will be at the mercy of your lizard brain, your reactive brain.

You're going to be at the mercy of your emotions and you won't be accessing those creative problem solving skills that you have. You're not able to access that part of your brain when you are in the middle of an intense, emotional reaction. You also won't be able to access your capacity for self compassion or even your meta thoughts and your interests that you have in changing your behavior. When you don't stop, you continue to be in reaction mode. You continue to be operating without accessing that part of your brain. That allows you to make different choices. And when you don't stop, you are primed to move forward with those old automatic habits and thoughts around overeating. So this first step. 

Stopping has such power behind it. And if stopping feels too big and it feels too dramatic, then use the word pausing. Think about pausing. Pausing can be as basic and as small as taking a few deep breaths and just acknowledging to yourself, I am so frustrated or I'm feeling so angry or I feel so powerless. Step one is a small stop. It is stopping and acknowledging to yourself what you know about what is going on. 

That feeds us right into the second step, which is actually checking in with what you're feeling and needing or what you're wanting. Because when you stop, you might have some things that you know right away. I am so mad. I am so frustrated. And as you continue to take some deep breaths, it's helpful to ask yourself a little more about that. What is it that you're feeling? What is it that you're needing? And yes, chocolate might sound fantastic. That might be your first reactive lizard brain kind of response. But this is the place where you get to beneath the food or deeper than the food, ask yourself what are you feeling? What's the word that you would put to it? 

Meg identified her anger right away. And she can also check in to see if she's feeling anything else. And then she can ask herself what she knows about what makes her so angry in situations like this. Maybe she wants to ask herself, what does she make it mean when the person doesn't understand her, or maybe she identifies that there are feelings in addition to anger. Like feeling dismissed or being upset about not being listened to not feeling heard. You might not be able to fix the situation and that doesn't need to be your first step or your next step actually, because we're on step two. So you might not be able to fix the situation and you don't want to go there. But fixing the situation may be very different from checking in with what you are feeling or needing or wanting and responding to those things. So can you find somebody who will listen to you, somebody who cares about you that you can talk it through with, or maybe you need to scream in your car, or maybe you need to just be kind to yourself and reassure yourself that you deserve better. You don't deserve the treatment that you just received. 

If you're craving calm or reassurance or reward the first step to taking care of yourself and not falling into mindless patterns like mindless eating or emotional eating that first, next step after you've stopped is to identify what you're wanting or needing. What are you craving that really isn't food? Food sounds good right now, reaching for something to eat is my reactive response. Can I look underneath that? And if I look underneath that, what do I know about what I'm needing or wanting or craving right now that isn't something to eat? That's step two. 

The third step is where we circle back because the third step is about applying self compassion. One of the hallmarks of feeling frustrated or angry or powerless, is that feeling of not being able to change. In fact, it's the powerlessness that often leads to the frustration and the anger. So when Meg was talking to that customer service rep who just would not hear her and wouldn't see the obvious, which was that the money had been taken out of her account, she felt powerless. And that led to frustration and anger and eating the pint of ice cream. In those instances where you feel like there's nothing I can do about this- I don't have any power here. Many people, most human beings in a situation like this will just throw up their hands. I'm so mad. I'm so damn mad. There's nothing I can do about this. So what am I going to do? I might as well eat the ice cream because this is out of my control. I can't do anything. 

Here is the key to step three. And actually it is an underlying key to how to solve this whole puzzle of not overeating when you're mad or you're frustrated. You do not have to fix your feelings to respond to them. I want to say that again, because it is really important. You don't have to fix your feelings to respond to them. When you were little and you were sick, your mom or your caretaker, couldn't magically take the sickness away. But, you may have memories of what that caretaker did for you when you were sick. You may have memories of special things that she did, or he did that made you feel better. Comfort strategies. Compassion, when you apply it liberally, is like that special thing you got when you were sick or the way your parents made you that tent on the couch. Or gave you special permission to watch TV all day. It didn't cure it,  it didn't make your symptoms any less, but it did help you feel better. Never underestimate the power of compassion. Just to make sure you heard it the first time and the second time, I'm going to say it a third time. You do not have to fix your feelings to respond to them.

And that is why step three is so important. It's so easy to overlook if you are in what am I going to do mode or fix it mode, but it can make all the difference. Sometimes all you can do in the moment is to be in the moment. Be with yourself, acknowledge that you're having a hard time acknowledge that that person was totally unreasonable. Rock yourself back and forth a few times. Get that warm blanket. Compassion may mean giving yourself a few minutes to feel misunderstood, to feel unheard, to feel frustrated on your own. In this place of compassion- that's where you can this is important. If it is really hard for you to conjure up compassion for yourself, because sometimes it is, tell yourself the things you tell a good friend or a child who had a problem that you couldn't solve. Somebody who's coming to you who feels helpless and frustrated and like they don't have any control. Tell yourself those things. That is compassion. And that is step three. 

Now step four is kind of where we get to the place where your brain probably wanted to go back at step one. Remember? So step one, you are in reaction mode. You are standing in front of the freezer. Maybe you have the pint of ice cream and the spoon in your hand and your brain is going to tell you, what else can I do? And then you go through that whole cycle of, I don't know what else to do. There's nothing else to do. I don't have control. Oh, might as well eat the ice cream. 

So now you have stopped. Now you have asked yourself some questions about what is going on underneath the must, eat ice cream feeling. Now you have applied some self-compassion or thought about self-compassion and allowed yourself to know and respond to your feelings separate from trying to fix the situation. Now you're ready for step four. And step four is what I refer to as instead strategies. Instead strategies, that's kind of like your, to do list. Instead strategies are your plan for what you will do instead of eating. Not doing something is the hardest kind of change to create. In fact, sometimes it is impossible. Having a plan for what you will do instead is much more effective and it's much easier. There are a lot of ins and outs for creating instead strategies that work. And again, if you go right to step four, it is very easy and reasonable sometimes for you to throw up your hands and say, I don't have an instead strategy. I don't know what to do instead. There is nothing I can do. This is a complicated topic. In fact, there is an entire training on this in the Your Missing Peace program which is where, because Meg was in the program, I directed her and this is where she started working in addition to these other steps. And here are the two keys to start with when you get to step four and start to think about instead strategies. 

Number one, deciding what to do instead of eating isn't the first step when you're frustrated, when you're angry, when you're feeling powerless. In fact, if you work your way through steps one through three, if you don't let your brain just react and step and skip to step four, because really you're in reaction mode, right?

So your brain gives you two choices. I either fix this right now or I eat. Your brain's not ready for that. But if you work through steps, one through three, sometimes step four will take care of itself. Sometimes by the time you get to step four, you either have a sense of what you can do instead of reaching for food or you've already done in doing steps one through three, you've already done something instead of reaching for food and the urge has transformed itself. 

But if you skip steps one through three, the instead strategy your brain comes up with is likely to be wildly off target and probably ineffective. So that is the first thing to start with. Don't start with instead strategies as step one, make sure you go through steps one through three. Oftentimes this last step will take care of itself. 

Here's the second thing. It is so important to remember that your instead strategy probably won't fix the problem. It might not erase it. It might not even ease your anger. You may still be angry after you come up with what you're going to do instead of eating. That's okay. What you need is not some perfect 100% instead strategy. What you need is an instead strategy that takes care of you. That takes care of you enough so that you can move on with your life and figure out what to do after that. 

Those are the four steps to begin to strengthen and practice. If you are somebody who overeats, when you're mad or when you're frustrated this cycle of steps, this four step process, it works. You might not notice the results right away, you might find that you need to cycle through the steps a few times, keep coming back to them. And if you have deeply ingrained habits of emotional eating, when you're angry or you're frustrated, it might take practice. It is going to take practice actually to recognize that need to stop. And to actually remember to activate these four steps. That is okay, starting to use the process and engage the process is a muscle that you need to strengthen, too. Remembering to stop is often the hardest thing, but guess what? Just like everything else. You do not have to get this perfect. Give it time and give yourself grace and compassion. Breaking the cycle of emotional eating or overeating when you're mad or frustrated is worth it.

Enjoy the show?

If you love this podcast, will you take 30 seconds to leave a review? It makes all the difference in my ability to share this information!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Your Missing Peace is the psychologist-designed program that provides the tools, the support, the coaching, and the confidence to create freedom from emotional eating and overeating. Finally - emotional eating help done right! Your Missing Peace is specifically designed for smart, high-achieving women who are DONE with diets, who want a lasting solution, and who are ready to take their power back from food, from overeating, and the scale. 

You may also like