Coping with Emotional Eating

I wrote last week about 3 things you need to address if you're eating to cope with emotions including eating enough, self-care, and stopping food rules. So let's say that you've been working on those three factors, although they take time by the way, but you're still really struggling. So what do you do now? The first step is trying to figure out what is really going on. Take a pause and try to notice the thoughts you're telling yourself. What are you saying?  


Before we go any further, I want to make one thing really clear though: the goal here is not to never eat due to emotions. Eating for comfort sometimes is a normal part of eating! What we're going for here is finding other ways of coping with your emotions so food isn't your only coping skill.

On that note, it's important to be thankful that you had food to cope when you didn't have any other way. It isn't something to be ashamed of but if you feel like it is no longer serving you because you feel uncomfortably full afterwards, for example, then this post is to help you to start examining what is going on for you.


The goal is to help you work towards a place where you can eat a cookie for comfort and enjoyment where you actually taste and enjoy the cookie instead of eating the cookie to feel numb. Make sense?


What are you feeling?


Until you can figure out the feeling you're trying to use food to cope with, it's going to be difficult to address. Are you worried? Angry? Sad? Guilty or embarrassed? Happy? Bored? What is going on for you?


If you can't pinpoint what the feeling is, are you feeling uncomfortable? It's okay if you can't pinpoint what is going on right away- if that's the case, starting to observe what is happening in those moments can be helpful.


What if it isn't a feeling but a habit?


One thing to note is that you might be eating more out of habit as opposed to an emotion- when you regularly eat at a certain time while doing a certain activity, you may do it without any other cue. If that's the case, you may want to try changing up your routine- if you usually sit at a certain spot on the couch while watching TV when you eat, trying to do something else like reading a book in a different room might be helpful. Some people even find sitting in a different part of the room can make breaking the habit a bit easier. More on forming new habits in a bit!


What do you need?


Take a second and pause- what do you really need right now? If you're bored, maybe you need to find something else to do. Calling a friend, going for a walk, or finding another activity you enjoy or feel productive doing might be what you need.


If you're feeling worried for example, do you need a distraction like playing with your dog or listening to music or colouring? Maybe what you really need is support like calling a friend, talking to your family, or talking with a therapist about your feelings?


What you might really need is to deal with that feeling. You could write a letter or write in your journal about how you're feeling. Maybe what you need is to take care of yourself-  you might need to say no to someone asking you to do something that makes you feel overwhelmed. Or perhaps you need some time for yourself or go for a walk.


Sometimes we will let ourselves take a break to eat but not to just decompress- it's okay to take a break without eating if that isn't what you need! If you're feeling stressed another great way to cope is through a guided breathing or meditation exercise. There are great apps that can walk you through like Headspace.

Maybe what you need is to address your feelings by writing in a journal 


One key here is not to tell yourself you will go for a walk or write in the journal instead of eating but rather tell yourself you're going to go for a walk and then see if you still feel like eating. If you use it as a full replacement without giving yourself space to eat, you may not try addressing your feelings because you may fear being deprived. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but this is important! 


Try to take a pause


So maybe you realized that you were anxious for example and you ended up eating the cookie without fully enjoying it anyways without realizing what you needed. That's okay and to be expected! Remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself. You may have the urge to beat yourself up and try to go back to restricting but remember that just increases your risk of eating to the point where you feel uncomfortable later and will perpetuate that restrict, overeat cycle. Be curious, not judgemental with yourself!



The fact that you were able to take a step back and recognize your feelings is success. Learning to find what you need instead of turning to food right away is a very difficult thing to do and it doesn't happen in a big leap- it happens in small steps. 


Also, eating for emotional reasons sometimes is okay! The goal here isn't to never eat for comfort for example but rather to stop using it as a primary way of coping with emotions. The goal is to stop going on auto-pilot and to start being present and enjoying the food you're eating. 


It takes time


One thing that is being looked at more and more in the area of behaviour change is the idea of neuroplasticity. Essentially, we can form new neural connections in our brains in terms of how we think and our habits but the key is that it takes time.

 Forming a new habit is like starting a new path- it takes time but eventually your new path will be well-worn and easy to follow!


One way to think of forming a new habit is this- you are in a tall, grassy field and you have a well worn path, which is your current habit. It's the easiest path and therefore what you do without thinking about it much. Starting a new behaviour is like trying to get to a different location through that tall grassy field- you need to start a new path. It isn't easy and it takes time but the more you use that path, the more worn and easier to walk it is. 


A new behaviour like addressing your feelings instead of eating isn't easy! It is going to take work and you may find you have to try different things to see what works for you. You'll go back to that well worn path sometimes and that's okay- just be curious and try to look at it as a learning experience.


Maybe you had been doing really well with reducing emotional eating in the evening and one day it comes back with a vengeance. It might be helpful to look back on the piece I wrote last week about things to address for eating to cope with emotion. Maybe you didn't eat enough earlier in the day, maybe you were sleep deprived, or maybe didn't fit in your usual self-care that week like taking some time to yourself. Step back and as yourself: what do you need?


So start paying attention to what is going on when you're eating to cope with emotions and start asking yourself what you really need! If you need some help working on eating to cope with emotions, you can find out more about my services here. Remember- be curious, not judgemental!






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