By: Collins Hodges, PsyD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Experts in health psychology agree that the majority of bariatric patients turn to food as a maladaptive coping response to negative emotions. In other words, for one reason or another, people struggling with their weight often have not found healthy ways to deal with stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without thinking about what you’re doing. Food also serves as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or stewing over a conflict, for example, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation. Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same. Because emotions are by definition transitory states, the short-term suppression of the negative feeling invariable returns, and then you are left to bear the additional burden of guilt of jeopardizing weight loss goals. This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle – your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad, and you overeat again.
There are specific principles to remember when trying to put an end to emotional eating:
Practice “riding out” negative emotions
Negative emotions come and go. They ebb and flow like the tide of the ocean. Although it may sound counterintuitive to many people, the biggest mistake people make is trying to either avoid negative emotions or fight them. Negative emotions actually become stronger when people do this. Rather, the key to gaining some control over them is choosing to invite them in and allowing yourself to feel. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. Approach your feelings with curiosity. This will allow for greater insight into your emotional world. Knowing that a bad feeling will subside is important, because learning to deal with it without eating involves developing the ability to deal with it. For example, this concept of overcoming negative emotions is utilized when working with patients with specific phobias. Let’s say we have a patient with a phobia of snakes. The treatment, of course, is not to advise the patient to simply avoid snakes or fight the emotion when around them. Rather, sessions are organized during which patients are gradually exposed to snakes over a period of time (in vivo exposure). The idea is that if you experience fear without doing anything to escape it, the fear will go away.
Keep a food diary
Perhaps the most empowering practice to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the mood-food dynamic is to keep a food diary. As you begin to identify emotional eating and attempt to overcome it, start logging your mood each time you eat. This will allow you to identify episodes of emotional eating. You will begin to see a pattern highlighting the times when you eat in bad moods and which foods are chosen.
Strip your junk food of its power
Each time you use comfort food as a way to cope with negative emotions, you empower the food itself. Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need food to get through bad feelings. Incidentally, studies have shown that eating high-fat and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the areas of the brain that manage stress, thereby reinforcing your reliance on eating in response to stress (Dallman et al, 2011).
Develop adaptive coping strategies
It will be important to find ways to cope with negative emotions that do not exacerbate the problem. In other words, what are some coping strategies that will help you deal with these feelings and not jeopardize your weight loss goals? Some examples may include aerobic exercise, weight resistance training, yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, joining a support group, talking with a trusted friend, getting involved with community programs of interest to you, etc.
Set yourself up for success
Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Instead, fill your refrigerator and pantry with healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, sources of lean protein, and high fiber/low fat products.
Are you really hungry?
Listen to your body and learn what your physical symptoms of hunger are. Although they will vary from person to person, recognize which of the following apply to you: 1) feelings of emptiness in the stomach, 2) gurgling, rumbling, or growling in the stomach, 3) dizziness, faintness, or light-headedness, 4) headache, 5) irritability, 6) lack of concentration, or 7) nausea. Make it a practice to assess your body’s signals. Are these signals reflective of true physical symptoms of hunger?