Can Counseling Help Me With Emotional Eating?
You may have participated in emotional eating without even realizing that’s what you were doing. If you have ever turned to chocolate after a breakup or a bowl of ice cream after a long, stressful day at work, you have engaged in emotional eating. Occasional emotional eating may be normal and not anything you need to worry about, but if you regularly eat to feel better, as opposed to sate your hunger, it may be time to consider additional support.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is consuming food not because you are hungry, but as a response to an emotion that may feel large and unmanageable. It is a coping mechanism that is often unhealthy, but it can be difficult to identify as compared to other problematic coping mechanisms such as substance use or gambling, because food is something that is required for sustenance and functioning.
Over time, as a person develops an unhealthy relationship with food, they may start to experience emotional hunger, which they may confuse for physical hunger. It often involves the consumption of “comfort foods,” or overeating food high in sugar, fat, salt, or carbohydrates, as opposed to well-rounded, balanced meals.
Emotional eating can also be referred to as stress eating, as stress is one of the most common emotional causes. It should be noted that stress is often thought of as a negative emotion, but stress can also be associated with positive changes in one’s life (and the urge to emotionally eat, relatedly, can also be in response to positive emotions or experiences).
Below are some of the most common causes of disordered eating, body image issues, and food challenges:
- Symptoms of a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, or PTSD
- Major life events, either positive or negative (i.e. starting a new job, relocating, getting married or divorced, experiencing the death of someone close to you, etc.)
- Feeling under pressure to perform well at work or school
- Troubles with a romantic relationship, such as an argument or a breakup
- Financial concerns
- Worries related to parenting or raising children
- Health issues, such as fatigue, chronic pain, or a serious illness
- Relationship conflict, either within friendships, families, or loved ones
- Insomnia and not getting enough sleep
- Everyday irritations and hassles
Emotional eating is a behavior, not a mental health condition, but it can be an indication of a larger mental health concern such as an eating disorder. In some cases, it may be highly compulsive, leading to difficulties when one tries to stop consuming so much.
Various factors may increase the risk that a person turns to this behavior as a coping mechanism:
- Harboring consistent negative thinking, including negative self-talk such as “I am fundamentally flawed” or “I am disgusting”
- Having a mental health condition
- Traumatic events in one’s past or childhood
- Lack of self-awareness
- Inability to express emotion in a healthy way, or at all
- Low self-esteem
- The need to feel in control
- Genetic and environmental factors
- Consistent exposure and lack of questioning related to harmful societal messaging around food, body image, and weight loss
- A history of dieting or otherwise denying oneself things that bring joy or pleasure, or currently being a diet that requires restriction of overall food intake or consumption of certain types of foods
- Regular engagement in other unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking, using drugs, gambling, self-harm, etc.
How a therapist can help with emotional eating
This behavior can become a cyclical pattern in your life: you are feeling a negative emotion, so you eat a lot of sugary food to feel better, then you feel ashamed and embarrassed about how much you’ve eaten, and you want to eat more to suppress the shame and embarrassment. Some people may also have an urge to start attempting weight loss and feel shame if they are unable to. Such behavioral cycles may be difficult to break on your own.
A counselor who specializes in eating disorders can help you develop techniques to interrupt this cycle and redirect yourself toward a healthier attitude toward food and difficult emotions as a whole over time.
You may have heard of practicing mindfulness, which is a mentality rooted in grounding yourself in the present moment and regularly checking in on what is going on with you both physically, within your body, and emotionally, within your mind. Mindfulness can be expanded into mindful eating, in which you bring mindful attitudes with you to the table.
A mental health professional may encourage you to remain aware while you are consuming foos. These awareness techniques could include paying more attention to the taste and texture of your food, chewing your food more slowly, and frequently pausing while eating to assess how the act of eating is impacting your body and feelings.
The practice of mindful eating could help you to better identify when your body needs food physically, as opposed to when you are craving it for emotional reasons. Research has found that mindful eating can lead to a reduction in symptoms.
Keeping a food diary
A natural extension of this practice is working with your counselor to keep a food diary. You may have kept a food diary before for dieting purposes, but an emotional eating food diary is much more than a record of what you ate, how much you ate, and when you ate. This kind of food diary will also require you to write down how you felt both physically and emotionally before consuming food, and how you felt afterwards.
Keeping this kind of a food record may help you in separating out instances of using food for sustenance versus using food to suppress an unpleasant emotion. You may also notice patterns in what causes urges, and work with your counselor to identify ways to redirect those urges. As you progress in therapy, you may begin to notice instances where you record experiencing a stressor, but you were able to abstain from this behavior.
Disrupting negative thought patterns
A huge component of emotional eating, as mentioned above, is the cycle, where you feel guilt and shame for engaging in this action and as a result are motivated to eat even more. Guilt and shame often result in negative thoughts and unkind self-talk.
Working with a counselor through in-person or online therapy can help you to hone in on these negative thought patterns and learn to replace them with more gentle and kind self-talk moving forward. As a bonus, being kinder to yourself can lead to you becoming more emotionally resilient, which may increase your ability to process the difficult emotions that might be motivating you to emotionally eat in the first place.
Finding a therapist
Emotional eating can feel overwhelming if you are attempting to break the habit on your own, but working with a supportive mental health professional who understands those patterns can make a significant difference. Your doctor or nutritionist may be able to recommend a therapist in your local area with expertise in unhealthy eating behaviors and eating disorder therapy.
If there are no therapists who specialize in eating disorders available locally, you may consider exploring online therapy options.
Online therapy through a service such as BetterHelp can open up opportunity to connect with thousands of licensed therapists trained in addressing emotional eating. Receiving therapy online for this behavior may be comparable to seeking traditional in-person therapy.
One study found that therapy delivered online made a meaningful difference in reducing symptoms of binge eating disorder, an eating disorder with emotional eating behaviors. Online therapy may be a convenient and effective may for you to begin to address this habit.
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