While it may be hard to stop, it’s usually not so hard to see “stress eating” in operation. A lot of emotional eating, though, hides in plain sight. You might not always see the connection between what you’re feeling and how you’re eating.
If you’re asking the question, “Why can’t I get myself to eat the way I want to?” , you can suspect emotional eating (though even this gets complicated these days, with foods “engineered” to make us want more). It starts so very easily: eating is one of our most fundamental human activities. We can’t live without it. We’re wired to like it very much, and to seek it out. We associate it with being cared for and comfortable. It doesn’t take much for food to start easing problems other than hunger.
Food is especially good at soothing and distracting us. It may distract us from bad feelings or critical thoughts about ourselves. It serves well, too, to quiet disturbing emotions that might feel dangerous to approach—doubts about a relationship, for instance, or anger at someone we love. Overeating can keep these kinds of feelings from surfacing—and save us from having to speak up or confront daunting situations. Also, overeating, and then worrying about it, can replace other kinds of worries, ones that might prove way more upsetting. Conversely, through overeating we can beat ourselves up when we feel guilty, mad at ourselves, or undeserving of good things.
We can start to emotionally overeat without even trying. Once your body and brain register the relief, you’ll tend to repeat the behavior without necessarily making the conscious connection. It can take some work to identify what purpose your overeating may serve.
Once emotional eating starts, though, it tends to take on a life of its own. So figuring out what you’re doing and why helps….but won’t necessarily stop the overeating. You’ll probably still have to do the hard work of breaking the old habits and establishing the new. Your understanding of what drives your overeating can help you talk yourself through those uncomfortable times, though, and make the whole process easier and more likely to succeed.
Changing how we eat and losing weight for good are not easy enterprises. If you’re using food to care for stress or emotions in any way, in fact, losing weight will become that much more impossible. Good physical health and good feelings about yourself are well worth whatever it takes to care for your emotional self without overeating. So, if you’ve identified yourself as an emotional overeater, you may want to seek one of the many self-help options available, including the Eat Sanely course. And sometimes it’s well worth the time and money and effort to seek help from a good therapist.