We’ve all heard the term “emotional eating”, and seen it portrayed on our television screens.
You know how it goes: Girl meets boy. Girl gets boy. Boy dumps girl. Girl consoles herself by sitting on her couch in front of the TV, in the dark, with tears pouring down her face as she digs her spoon into a tub of ice cream.
Of course emotional eating is not limited to women, even if that is how the media portrays it!
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is the term given when an individual uses food to deal with distressing emotions. This method of coping often becomes a habit, which like any habit can be very difficult to break.
Although emotional eating brings immediate comfort, it also tends to lead to feelings of guilt, regret and shame (not to mention the impact it can have on the waistline!). Thus, emotional eating actually perpetuates the cycle of psychological distress.
Although emotional eating seems the primary problem, at its core it is more about feeling powerless over painful emotions, than about dietary difficulties.
How to Overcome Emotional Eating
Individuals who have binge eating problems may have tried many ways to control their eating habits, but usually find that the outcomes are short lived.
This is because emotional eating is more about difficulties in dealing with distressing emotions, rather than eating itself.
So rather than hitting the treadmill or starting another diet, identifying what is triggering this behaviour is the first step towards understanding how to overcome emotional eating. The individual could ask themselves questions such as: What is the root cause of my distress? What am I feeling when I reach for the ice cream (or whatever your food of choice is), during a binge? to help with this process.
According to research, emotional eating is often related to things like:
- life stressors (yes, relationship breakdown counts as a major life stressor);
- feelings of emptiness;
- a history of trauma;
- difficult family dynamics;
- and chronic mental illnesses.
If you have struggled with emotional eating, perhaps it is time to stop counting kilojoules or joining a weight loss group, and instead, visit a psychologist so you can learn to handle your emotional distress in other, healthier ways.
How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome Emotional Eating
The initial stage of psychotherapy usually involves teaching the individual skills, to better equip them to regulate their intense emotions; people often refer to these moments as “having a breakdown”.
These skills will usually include utilising distractions and self soothing techniques, as they are effective ways to shift attention from painful emotions temporarily; this process is like hitting the “pause” button, to allow time for those impulses to subside. Although these strategies do not address the underlying causes of the emotional distress, they are still a powerful way to facilitate a sense of control over the individual’s eating urges and emotional pain.
Once the individual feels more confident about managing their emotions, the second phase of psychotherapy will focus on the underlying causes that have contributed to the emotional eating problems.
If you would like to see a psychologist to learn how to overcome emotional eating problems, I have worked with many clients just like you. My therapeutic approach is tailored to your specific situation, but usually incorporates practical strategies to help you manage your impulsive eating behaviour more effectively, and addressing the cause/s underlying this behaviour.
Any type of therapy is about change; and change can often be difficult. It can be common to feel disheartened, and to want to give up after many relapses. Thus, I believe that part of my role as a psychologist is to help my clients by motivating change, as it is crucial to overcoming emotional eating problems (or in fact, any other difficulty in life).
Author: Claire Pang, B Psych (Hons), Masters of Clinical Psychology.
As a Clinical Psychologist, Claire has been trained in psychological assessment and evidence-based therapies for both individual adults and couples. She is result-orientated, practicing a wide range of therapeutic approaches with great success. Claire has a special interest in helping adults and couples coping with change; she gains great fulfillment and inspiration through witnessing human resilience again and again in her clinical work.
To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Claire Pang at Vision Psychology Wishart, try online booking or call (07) 3088 5422.
- Gilbert, S (2014). Therapy for Eating Disorders. London: Sage Publications.
- Selekman, D., & Beyebach, M. (2013). Changing self-destructive habits. New York: Routledge.
- Jongsma, A (2011). The Complete Adult Psychotherapy Treatment Planner. Hoboken: Wiley.
- Gilbert, P (2011). The compassionate-mind guide to ending overeating. CA: New Harbinger Publications.