How to Stop Emotional Eating as a Coping Mechanism
Do you turn to "comfort food" to cope with emotional issues? Try this instead.
Posted July 7, 2019 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
I once knew a very heavy man (let's call him Johnny) who ate a half dozen hot dogs whenever he felt too angry, lonely, depressed, anxious, or upset. Unfortunately, he felt this way often and believed his hot dog feasts were necessary to "cope" with these feelings. Johnny thoroughly enjoyed the hot dogs, but was extremely unhappy about his weight, as were his doctors. So he came to me for better coping tools.
Initially, I gave Johnny exactly what he asked for. I showed him some breathing techniques to help deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, which plays a strong role in producing the feeling that one must urgently act on the impulse to overeat. I also helped him more specifically label his emotions so he might gain more of a sense of control. But once I'd given Johnny what he asked for, I also explained he might be approaching the entire issue with the wrong mindset.
See, if you consider emotional upset to be a "fire," then Johnny's paradigm was: "I must put it out!" But if you think about it, you can have a very intense fire in your living room, and as long as it's contained by an effective fireplace, that fire actually becomes the center of hearth and home. People gather around the fireplace with a roaring fire, share stories, and make memories. It's only when there's a hole in the fireplace which allows sparks and embers to escape that the fire becomes dangerous.
Similarly, it's only when emotions are allowed to "jump" out of the fireplace and become actual behaviors that damage to your health is done, and this only happens when some type of rational justification makes it "OK" to act against your previously best-laid plans.
It turns out that when you make a very specific rule to accomplish an important health goal, there's almost always a voice of justification that occurs which rationalizes crossing the line you previously swore not to cross, even if you aren't conscious of this rationalization at the time. There has to be, because if that line weren't important to you, you wouldn't have made it in the first place. Your conscious brain won't let you cross it unless you've got what appears to be a good reason at the time.
For example, Johnny made a rule for himself not to eat more than three hot dogs per day. We could argue about the merits of the rule itself, but for the purpose of our discussion, it's only relevant to note he did make the rule. Once the rule was in place, the voice of rationalization became much clearer in Johnny's head, because he could more easily tell when he was considering crossing the line.
I asked Johnny to identify any thoughts he heard before crossing the line. He reported the following four:
- "This is intolerable! I shouldn't have to put up with people like this [usually his boss]. The only way to cope is with more hot dogs."
- "You're starving. You have to eat something. More hot dogs are the obvious choice!"
- "Screw it, you worked out this morning, and you can afford it. You can just start again in the morning!"
- "You'll never find real love. The only thing that makes life worthwhile is hot dogs. Let's get more!"
These were the very specific thoughts which were "poking a hole in his fireplace" and justifying crossing the lines and acting on the emotions in a negative way (i.e., eating more hot dogs). To help arrest this behavior, I helped Johnny to very specifically dispute each one:
1. Thought: "This is intolerable! I shouldn't have to put up with people like this (usually his boss). The only way to cope is with more hot dogs."
Disputation: "Almost everyone has to swallow some difficult treatment from their superiors. Besides, hot dogs aren't the only way to cope. I could work it off in the gym, go for a walk, do some breathing exercises, or just sit with the anger until it passes... which is almost always a lot quicker than I think it will be."
2. Thought: "You're starving. You have to eat something. More hot dogs are the obvious choice!"
Disputation: "I'm very far from starving. I'm overweight, and nobody's going to find my bones by the refrigerator tomorrow morning if I don't eat more hot dogs right now. Besides, there are a lot of other things I could eat to provide calories and nutrition for my body. I could just choose any of my staples. Lean protein, oatmeal, rice, beans, etc. I can eat, just not more hot dogs!"
3. Thought: "Screw it, you worked out this morning, and you can afford it. You can just start again in the morning!"
Disputation: "I worked out hard this morning, because I want to take care of myself and change my body composition, not so I could eat more hot dogs. Besides, if I indulge and cross the line today, the principle of neuroplasticity says I'll have a harder time holding the line tomorrow. 'What fires together wires together,' so I'd only be making the addiction stronger. The only time you can ever be healthy is right now, and I always use the present moment to be healthy!"
4. Thought: "You'll never find real love. The only thing that makes life worthwhile is hot dogs. Let's get more!"
Disputation: "Being obese makes life less worthwhile to me. What would make it more worthwhile would be being able to wear anything in my closet, having the energy to play with my young children, being able to go hiking, and feeling more confident in my appearance so that I'm more likely to approach women and actually find love!"
At first, Johnny felt he couldn't fight these thoughts even though he could identify them. So I had him carry around a little card with the specific disputations for each one, and I asked him to keep a little journal each morning where he wrote down any new rationalizations he felt brewing in his head. After a while, these thoughts lost their power, and Johnny indeed stuck with his three-hot-dog rule.
Now, you may not struggle with hot dogs like Johnny did. In fact, according to our research, it's more likely you struggle with pizza, chips, sugar, bread, or chocolate. It doesn't matter. What you want to do is define a clear line for yourself so you can hear the voice of rationalization in your head. Then, very specifically dispute that voice in all its forms.
This is what gives you those extra microseconds at the moment of temptation to wake up and make a better choice, or at minimum, what gives you a chance to breathe and think about it.
This is just one part of the system for overcoming emotional overeating. For more, see my earlier post, "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."
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