How to prevent emotional eating when you’re frustrated, angry, or feel powerless

“I was mad and frustrated – so I ate.”

Ever find yourself eating because you feel powerless, frustrated, or angry? I’ve been there. This week, a member of Your Missing Peace asked a question about emotional eating that you might be able to relate to:

“Yesterday I was on the telephone with a company who had not credited my account with a promised refund. I did not get a refund, and I was looking at the original charge on my bank statement. The representative kept telling me that the payment never came out of my account. I told her I was looking right at the debit. She never did “get it.” When I hung up the phone a little later, I was angry and went straight to the refrigerator and got a pint of ice cream and ate it. I was in the fridge getting the ice cream without allowing myself to think about what I was doing. Any ideas how I could short circuit this? I really dislike being told that I am not seeing what I am looking at on the bank statement. Anger is a tough one for me.”

Before I share the four steps to help stop emotional eating when you’re frustrated, it’s important to highlight the one key strategy that my client (let’s call her Meg) is already using.

Instead of getting lost in guilt, shame, or frustration with herself, she’s using the experience that didn’t go well to learn something that will help her succeed.

Your progress toward freedom from overeating will never be perfect and the most powerful thing you can do is look for the learning in the moments that don’t go well. What could I do differently? and Why didn’t that work? are two questions that will exponentially increase your success if you ask them with compassion.

Step One: Stop

When you’re angry, frustrated, or feeling powerless, it’s quite likely that you are also emotionally activated. This affects your brain chemistry and the way you process information. You’re in reaction mode which is a prime set up for autopilot or “mindless” behaviors like emotional eating.

After you hang up the phone, walk out of the meeting, or exit the frustrating situation, pause long enough to allow your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that is going to help you choose a helpful next step)to engage. If you don’t, you’ll be at the mercy of your amygdala – your “lizard” brain and you won’t be accessing your creative problem solving skills, your self-compassion, and your interest in changing your behavior.

This pause can be as basic as taking a few deep breaths and acknowledging to yourself, “I am SO frustrated.” Take a few more deep breaths and see if you can conjure up some self-compassion. Again, this can be a simple statement like, “Gee, that was so hard” or “I’m feeling really misunderstood right now.”

Step Two: Check in with what you are feeling, needing, or wanting

Channel that self-compassion to wonder about what you feel and need. Yes, chocolate may sound fantastic, but go beneath the food. What are you feeling? Meg identified her anger right away. She can also check-in to see if she’s feeling anything else and ask herself what she knows about what makes her so angry in situations like this. Not being listened to or heard? Feeling dismissed?

You might not be able to fix the situation, but can you find a compassionate ear, scream in your car, or rub your ear lobes and reassure yourself that you deserve better? If you’re craving calm or reassurance or a reward, the first step to taking care of yourself (and not falling into mindless emotional eating) is to identify what are you wanting or needing (what are you craving – that really isn’t food).

Step Three: Apply self-compassion

Often, one of the hallmarks of feeling frustrated, angry, or powerless is that feeling of not being able to change things. In fact, it’s the powerlessness that often leads to frustration and anger. In these instances, many people throw up their hands. “I’m so damn mad and there’s nothing I can do about it so I might as well eat the ice cream!”

You don’t have to “fix” your feelings to respond to them.

Let me say that again because it’s really important. You don’t have to “fix” your feelings to respond to them.

When you were little and you had the flu, your mother didn’t magically take it away. But if you may have memories of special things she did that “made you feel better” – comfort strategies.

Compassion, liberally applied, is like the special blanket you got when you were sick, or the way your parents made you a tent on the couch, or gave you special permission to watch TV all day. It didn’t cure you, but it did help you feel better.

Never underestimate the power of compassion.

Sometimes all you can do in the moment is be in the moment. Be with yourself and acknowledge that you’re having a hard time. Rock yourself back and forth a few times. Give yourself a few minutes to feel misunderstood and unheard and feel frustrated on your own behalf. Tell yourself the things you’d tell a girlfriend or a child who had a problem you can’t solve for them.

Step Four: Instead Strategies

Instead Strategies are your plan for what you’ll do instead of eating. “Not doing” something is the hardest kind of change to create. Having an alternate plan (what you’ll do instead) is much easier. There are important ins and outs to creating Instead Strategies that work. In fact, there’s an entire bonus training on this in my Your Missing Peace emotional eating program (which I directed Meg to). Here are the two keys to start with.

  1. Deciding “what to do instead of eating” isn’t the first step when you’re frustrated, angry, or feeling powerless. In fact, if you work your way through steps 1 – 3, sometimes this step will take care of itself. If you skip steps 1 – 3, your Instead Strategy is likely to be wildly off-target and pretty ineffective.
  2. Your Instead Strategy probably won’t fix the problem. It might not erase, or even ease your anger. That’s okay. What you need is an Instead Strategy that takes care of YOU.

This four-step process works. You may not notice results right away, and you may find that you need to cycle through the steps a few times. If you have deeply ingrained habits of emotional eating when you’re angry or frustrated, it may take practice to recognize the need to stop or to remember to activate these four steps. Give it time. Breaking the cycle of emotional eating is worth it.

Talk soon,

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Emotional Eating Coaching Program

Your Missing Peace: The Coaching Club is the group coaching program where smart women discover their power to create freedom from overeating and peace with food – with more ease and joy than they ever thought possible.

If you’re a smart, busy, high-achiever who’s tired of going in circles with overeating and emotional eating, and you're ready to create results that last, check out The Club today!

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