If you’ve been finding yourself visiting the refrigerator too often during the pandemic, there’s a reason why you’re turning to food—even when you’re not hungry. Eating disorders have surged since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even those without diagnosed eating disorders have noticed that they’re engaging in more frequent emotional eating since the start of the pandemic.
To rid yourself of this destructive habit, it’s important to see emotional eating not as the root problem, but rather as a symptom that will go away on its own once the root problem is resolved.
The root of emotional eating is our inability to properly process emotions. You may have tried common suggestions to resist emotional eating, like taking a relaxing bath, doing an activity to distract yourself, or calling a friend.
While none of this advice is wrong, there’s a deeper layer that’s often missing for people who keep returning to the cookie cupboard. Perhaps you’ve experienced the urge to emotionally eat, and then tried to distract yourself with a walk, only to find that the cravings returned as soon as you got home or even later that night. Why?
When you try to distract yourself from emotional eating without dealing with the emotions themselves, you’re avoiding the problem rather than fixing it. In the example of taking a walk, even if it serves as a temporary distraction, bear in mind that the food itself is already a distraction―from your emotions. By adding in yet another distraction—the walk—without addressing the emotions that drove the food cravings in the first place, you’re only adding in more layers of distance from the actual problem.
Emotional eaters heal best when they stop trying to distract themselves or numb their emotions, and instead learn to relate to their emotions more effectively. While on the outside, it may look like the problem is with food, since that’s the coping mechanism you use, it’s important to remember that emotional eating is a result of a mishandling of emotions.
When you work with your emotions directly and successfully, it eliminates the root desire for emotional eating—as well as other types of numbing. There are many techniques used to deal with emotions without getting consumed by them. Many of these techniques include a core of similar simple steps.
Step 1: Cultivate Non-Judgmental Awareness
We can’t change the things we don’t notice, which means awareness is always the first step in changing a habit. Have you ever found yourself looking in the refrigerator without realizing how you got there? Or have you eaten cookie after cookie, while barely tasting them because you were thinking about something else?
Mindlessness in our day-to-day behaviors can very easily translate into mindless eating. Awareness is one of the main ingredients of mindfulness, which is the exact antidote to mindlessness.
When you can practice mindful awareness toward your behaviors, you’re already well on your way to behavior change—especially when you can observe your behaviors through a non-judgmental lens. You’re then more likely to approach your habits more objectively, rather than emotionally. This will allow you to make changes in a more peaceful manner.
Step 2: Allow Emotions and Feelings to Exist
As the old saying goes: “What you resist persists.” The more energy we give to our emotions, the more powerful they feel. If you’re afraid of your emotions, you’ll exert energy to avoid them or push them away. But those are the exact habits that’ll make your emotions feel even more powerful and overwhelming. When you can approach them with a peaceful mind—without fear—they become easier to deal with.
The next time you notice yourself feeling emotional, label the emotion that you’re experiencing. Practice allowing it to be there, knowing that it will change eventually. Practice being calm by relaxing your body and breathing, even in the presence of an unpleasant emotion. The more you can become comfortable feeling uncomfortable, the less you’ll try to avoid your emotions by eating.
Step 3: Determine Your True Need
Emotional eaters have a tremendous advantage, because the moment you feel yourself wanting to emotionally eat, that’s the signal that you have a need that isn’t being met. This means you can use that signal to your advantage, by asking yourself what you really need in that moment, and then helping yourself meet that need in any amount.
One of our clients experienced this recently. After a stressful afternoon at work, she found herself mindlessly eating a bag of chips. As soon as she became aware of what she was doing, she took a moment to pause, so that she could determine her true need. Without judging herself for turning to food, she paused to bring herself back to the present moment. Once she felt calm, she asked herself: “What do I truly need right now?”
She quickly discovered that she needed a break from work, and was using eating as that break, even though she wasn’t hungry. She decided that a walk would serve her better, so she stepped outside to truly enjoy the fresh air and get herself out of her head and into her body. During her walk, she focused on her breathing and body first, to relax herself. Then she enjoyed the scenery, and let it truly be the break from her workday that she needed.
When she listened to her emotions and gave herself what she needed, the desire to emotionally eat naturally fell away.
Notice how even though her conclusion was to go for a walk, it wasn’t the walk itself that solved the problem. Rather, it was her ability to become aware, pause, and ask herself what she truly needed. If someone were to ignore those three steps and just use a walk as a distraction, they may not get the same promising results that she did.
Emotional eating has little to do with food itself, and far more to do with how you handle emotions. When you can work with your emotions in a productive way, the need to repress, fight, or avoid those emotions disappears—as does emotional eating.
Today, if you have a craving to emotionally eat, let it be an opportunity to practice healing your relationship with your emotions. Once you master this, it won’t matter if there’s a hard day at work or a pandemic―you’ll have the tools to handle it and emerge victoriously.