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How to Regulate Emotions Without Food and Eating

Many of my clients when they come to me over-eat for momentary comfort and to manage their emotions or their unwanted feelings like stress or anxiety. Other clients, and me personally once upon a time, manage their emotions by precisely controlling or restricting food.

How to regulate emotions without food or eating, stop emotional eating

Food is a great way to self-medicate. It tastes good, it makes us feel better immediately (though often only briefly), it's easily available and legal.

Food comforts and soothes us. It stimulates pleasure pathways in the brain. it also has strong emotional associations. It has meaning and memory. It can remind you of home, childhood, or that time you went to Italy or Thailand; visited your grandmother; had your favourite holiday meal; etc.

Food connects us to others, to our family, heritage and culture. It's often a way we express love, care, concern, and/or celebration to others. Or preserve our history and who we are. The positive associations and connections make food a central joy of life.

Using food as comfort, to feel good, and to stop feeling bad isn't a problem on its own. Nor is wanting to "take charge" of our eating behaviours, and possibly take in less energy or make different choices.

Almost all of us do this sometimes. It's normal and it makes sense.

The problem with regulating emotions with food happens when:

  • we do it excessively (e.g. daily)

  • we focus too much of our lives around it at the expense of other activities

  • we feel out of control or compelled to do it

  • we can't or don't stop eating when we are satisfied

  • we're ultimately harming ourselves (whether from eating too much, or not enough)

  • we don't have any other way of creating connection or comfort, or managing our feelings

So what can you do? Here are a some practices and suggestions to help.

Identify physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and your connections to food and eating

If you know that you manage your feelings without food and eating, maybe you interpret this behaviour as "not having willpower", "needing accountability", or "being unmotivated". Perhaps you don't know how to stop or what to do instead. Maybe you feel "swept away" by it when it happens—you only become "conscious" of it or feel like you can get back into control after an eating or food restriction episode has occurred.

So, before we can change it, we need to become away of it. Here are five ways to raise your emotional eating awareness:

1. Do a mind-body scan

This basic mindfulness technique, which we introduced earlier, involves simply "scanning" the body from head to toe, noticing physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Getting into the habit of "checking in" with yourself helps you notice and name what is actually going on.

Practicing this 5-minute exercise to identify the indicators like:

  • What physical sensations am I noticing?

  • What emotions and feelings am I experiencing?

  • What thoughts and mental scripts are coming to mind?

This 5-minute exercise can slow down automatic behaviours enough to help you get back into "wise mind", where you can feel less overwhelmed by compulsions and more able to make thoughtful choices.

2. Identify common triggers

If you already know what sensations, emotions, and/or thoughts trigger your eating patterns, you can skip this step. If you don't, keep reading and practice "HALT":

  • Hungry

  • Angry (or anxious)

  • Lonely

  • Tired

When you notice the urge to eat emotionally (or to restrict eating), pause for a minute and ask yourself if you're hungry; angry or anxious; lonely; and/or tired. While these aren't the only reasons for emotional eating, they are the most common in my experience with clients.

This awareness can lead to other useful exercises:.

3. Start a food and feelings journal

Use a simple food journal or reach out to me for a copy of me emotional eating journal, and jot down your thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations you have at meal time (or at times when you're deliberately skipping meals, purging, and/or compensating with exercise).

Look at your journal over the course of a few days or a week and see if you can identify any patterns. For example, do you notice any links between specific thoughts, feelings, situations and/or behaviours?

4. Ask 2 crazy questions

I love the Ask 2 Crazy questions approach when discussing eating behaviours with my clients:

  • What is GOOD about these behaviours, thoughts and feelings for you?

  • What might be BAD about changing them?

The goal with these questions is to understand why you're struggling with particular thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Separate urges from behaviours

Sometimes making better choices is separating the automatic urge to do something from actually doing it. The slower we go, or the more space and time we put between a "Do this now!" thought and actually doing it, the more we put our conscious, adult "wise mind" in control, rather than our unconscious autopilot, which leads me to my next

1. Make a "discomfort deal"

If you're feeling ready, willing and able to start changing your emotional eating behaviours, try the "discomfort deal". When you feel the urge to eat emotionally (or to control/restrict food or over-exercise, etc.), use this 5-minute action to practice sitting with that urge. Set a timer if you like:

During this 5-minutes, simply notice what you're thinking or feeling, whatever comes up. And notice that you feel uncomfortable, but it's okay. After that five minutes, you can make any choice that feels right.

2. Come up with "personal nourishment menu" with alternatives and

implement them

Once you've identified what you're actually seeking when turning to emotional eating or restriction (e.g. to calm down, to have fun, to connect with others), come up with a list of alternatives, I call this the personal nourishment menu, such as:

  • basic relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation

  • practicing movement that you enjoy like

  • taking a walk

  • having a hot shower or a bath

  • getting a massage

  • doing something creative and hands-on like crafts or building

  • journaling

  • listening to music

  • calling a friend

  • snuggling or walking with a pet

3. Think on a continuum

Look at things on a continuum from better to worse. For example:

  • In situation X, what might be a slightly better choice? Why?

  • What might be a slightly worse choice? Why?

  • What choice do you feel able to make right now? Why?

The key is to identify what might be slightly better for you in your particular situation. Focus on moving one small "notch" along the continuum, rather than trying to do it all perfectly.

For instance, many of my clients can't stop emotional eating or binge eating completely, but find that they do it less often, or that when they do it, it's not as extensive or intense by looking at it on a continuum. Or they may choose to over-eat but choose healthier options. This is progress!

Emotional eating is not uncommon. Give these strategies a try and let me know how you do. Need help? Book a free health strategy session with me today.

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