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Emotional Eating (It's Not About the Food!)

Jan 07, 2021

Last night, after we put the kids down, I told my husband I would wash the dishes and then do a little work on my laptop. He went upstairs to his office and two hours later found me standing over an empty container of mixed nuts, with my Airpods in (because obviously I didn’t want him to hear), watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on Amazon Prime. It’s a fun show by the way… 

As he came into the room, I immediately turned my phone off and rolled up my sleeves as though I was JUST about to start washing the dishes.

We both burst into laughter and he goes: “Alright… you’re totally buffering.”

And he was SO RIGHT.

 Because binge watching anything is just completely unlike me. My middle name is productivity and I’m not generally someone who spends time watching shows. So when I get into a binge watching phase, it is usually an indication that there’s something deeper going on. That I’m BUFFERING.

So what is emotional buffering? 

It’s a term used in the coaching world for activities that distract you from actually feeling your feelings. It’s using things outside of us, to mask or escape from the things going on inside of us. Make sense? So we are trying to buffer how we are actually feeling. Typically buffering can look like over-eating, over-drinking, over-Netflixing, over-spending, over-instagramming…. You get the picture. It’s mindlessly tuning out from your life, distracting yourself so you don’t have to actually FEEL whatever negative emotion you have going on, or escape from the present moment. 

Have you found yourself, like “I’m kinda bored or I’ve had a hard time and I’m stressed so you find yourself just scrolling through Amazon for something to buy? I totally have - the other day it was “oooh, I need some new winter running gear. Let’s just see what’s out there…” And an hour of my life is gone when I should have been sleeping. It’s the modern day version of retail therapy.

Another example: Over-eating. Many people don’t recognize that they are emotional eaters. But if you have ever come home after a long day, where it was just super high stress at work, and you’ve had the thought - ugh I just want nacho chips tonight, or I just want to dig into that icecream into the freezer… that’s emotional eating. The idea that food provides the reward for the stress or anxiety you’re experiencing. 

Over-drinking is another common one. And it doesn’t mean getting wasted, necessarily, it might just be having that nightly glass of wine when you get home to decompress. Having a glass of wine isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re finding that you want to stop, but can’t or if you are finding that the nightly glass of wine is working against some of your other goals (like weight loss), then it may be a behaviour that’s not aligned with your values.

The issue is that although these activities provide some temporary relief, they are just distractions. I’ll even go so far as to say they are maladaptive responses to unpleasant feelings. 

You see, here’s the thing, these activities give the brain a little bit of dopamine. Processed food, alcohol, social media - these products all leverage the same dopamine-driven neural circuitry that is involved in habit formation and motivating behaviour. They create feedback loops and activate learning within the brain and after a while, what was once triggered by anxiety or anger or some unpleasant emotion, has become a habit of having a glass of wine every night, or snacking in front of the TV - it’s now autopilot behaviour.

So when we engage in these buffering strategies, we’re practising how to buffer, instead of practising feeling our feelings. We are then solidifying the behaviour by training our brain because of the dopamine effect. 

Let me give you one last example of “over-ing” that is a little more subtle. Over-working. I am prone to this. When my husband and I have an argument, my tendency is to be SUPER productive. I’ll get on my laptop and get tons of work done, or I’ll go to my to-do list and check off a bunch of errands. I go into productivity mode. For the longest time, I thought this was so much more noble a response than my husband’s pain response, until a therapist pointed out to me (several years ago) that it’s just another maladaptive response to pain. I do, do, do, so I don’t have to feel. Over-working is another escape mechanism.

Feeling our feelings isn’t something we’re taught in school - or in life - or ever. Right? Have you ever taken a course of how to feel angry? No. Have you ever taken a course on how to feel anxious? No. Generally in our society, these unpleasant emotions are described as negative emotions - so we want to avoid them as much as possible. And it’s not our fault, according to the Motivational Triad theory, humans are motivated to 

  1. Seek pleasure

  2. Avoid pain

  3. Conserve energy

Unpleasant emotions are painful - so we want to avoid them. 

Part of the problem is that we call unpleasant emotions - “negative emotions”. Unpleasant emotions are unpleasant, but they’re not necessarily BAD and in fact they are very NORMAL. They are part of the human experience. Our lives are not just GLAD (which is the primary pleasant emotion) much of the time. There is suffering, there is pain, there is a pandemic, there is lockdown, there is social isolation, there is sickness… None of that is particularly pleasant. But the beauty of life is being able to experience all of that fully - the balance of pleasant and unpleasant and continue to thrive.

When we label unpleasant as “bad” or “negative” emotions - our brain tries to problem solve how to avoid these feelings.

So now let’s hone in on emotional eating, but hopefully you can see that there are lots of different types of BUFFERING and these principles will apply to all of them.

If your escape mechanism is food, then you will buffer by eating. Instead of feeling your emotions, you eat them. Your brain will get some temporary relief from the pain. But the problem is still there, the pain is still there, you haven’t learned how to feel your feelings, and quite likely you’ve actually increased your unpleasant feelings because you may now feel guilty or bad about your eating, and so more unpleasant feelings means finding some more food to eat. This is compulsive over-eating or binge eating. 

Recall the dopamine-reward learning that I mentioned earlier, the challenge then gets further complicated because after a while, you’re not only dealing with emotional eating - you’re also dealing with autopilot, habitual eating and you have to address both. 

Most people who struggle with stress eating or emotional eating, if they don’t recognise it, they’ll just keep focusing on food. 

  • “I just need to find a healthier alternative… what can I snack on in the evening that will replace the chips? Or the icecream?” 

  • “I need to keep triggers out of the house so I don’t binge. I won’t buy chocolate bars anymore.” (But then they over-eat nuts - right? I used to be that person who had no processed sugar in the house, but I would overeat dates with walnuts and likely take in over a thousand calories at a time!)

  • “Or maybe if I just change my diet to a plant-based diet, then I won’t do this anymore.” 

  • “Maybe if I count my calories, then I won’t over-eat in the evening….”

Here’s the thing,

Emotional eating has nothing to do with food.

Food is just the buffer. As I shared earlier, it could just as easily be alcohol, or online shopping, or spending hours on Facebook.

So let me give you three strategies to help you stop emotional buffering:

  1. Learn to feel your feelings. This sounds easy, but it isn’t.  It’s really hard for me. I can tell you what I’m thinking, but it’s really hard to identify what I’m feeling. Many people will misidentify thoughts as feelings, for example, how are you feeling? “I’m feeling like people don’t like me.” OR “I’m feeling like my marriage is falling apart.” Those are not feelings, those are thoughts. 

    • One quick differentiator, is that thoughts come in sentences and feelings are one word. Lonely, ashamed, fearful, irate, distressed, overwhelmed, proud, successful, confused, disillusioned, perplexed… These are all feelings. And as you can see, feelings go way beyond, happy, sad and mad.

    • Feeling your feelings has two parts: 1) Identifying your feelings, and then 2) Discovering how they feel in your body.

    • To identify your feelings, it’s helpful to use a feelings wheel. Just google feelings wheel and you’ll be surprised at how many different emotions are named. When you put a name to the feeling, you’re validating your experience - defining the emotion and acknowledging it, instead of subconsciously feeling the “badness” without acknowledging it. And remember - unpleasant emotions are not bad emotions.

    • The next step is to then discover how that emotion actually feels in your body. Do you feel a knot in the pit of your stomach, tightness in your chest, a hollowness, or heaviness in your head or drooping of your shoulders? If you can learn to feel the unpleasant feeling, you’ll be better able to notice when the emotions are coming on and it won’t be as scary.

2. Identify what thoughts are behind the feelings. Be an observer of your thoughts. I’m going to use my personal example from last night. After my husband pointed out that I was buffering, I went upstairs and sat down with my journal. I asked myself how I was feeling: discouraged, inadequate, tired. And then I asked myself what my brain was saying, which revealed thoughts like: “Why would anyone want to listen to me? I have nothing of value to add. I’m never going to be a good enough coach. I’m not a thought leader.” I’m just being really real right now because hopefully this helps someone.  I essentially had all this garbage floating around in my head, causing me to feel really unpleasant emotions. And I didn’t even know they were there until I spent the time to ask my brain what negativity it was spouting!

3. Reframe Thought Distortions - Now once I got to the root of the issue, I realized that my thoughts were really beating me up and not serving me in any way. So I spent some time writing down reframed thoughts that resulted in more positive emotions for me. And that’s why I can show up and give you hopefully some value today and serve you, because I didn’t let my brain keep beating me up producing inertia.

Now, in this example, the emotions I was feeling were unhealthy emotions - because they were being driven by self-defeating thoughts. Not all unpleasant emotions are driven by the inner critic. For example, if a family member passes away and you’re experiencing grief, that is a healthy emotion. It’s not problematic and it’s not something to try to fix by reframing your thinking - necessarily. The goal with something like grief would be to allow yourself to sit with the grief, tolerate the discomfort, process the emotion, without eating or buffering it away. It’s a concept called Distress Tolerance.

4. Learn your patterns. The formal term for this would be Behaviour Chain Analysis. Essentially, the idea is that the emotional eating behaviour is just one tiny part of a sequence of events that culminates in the overeating. If you just focus on that one behaviour, you’ll keep trying to muster up more willpower and you’ll focus on the food and trying to change the food to stop the behaviour. Instead, look at the chain - the preceding events, the triggers, the vulnerabilities (like were you sleep deprived) and then look at the consequences - what happens to you and how do you deal with yourself after the overeating episode. One of the most important skills that you can acquire to change your behaviours is to identify your patterns. Then you can action plan how to adjust. 

5. Do a Cost Benefit Analysis. If emotional eating, stress eating or compulsive overeating is something you’re really struggling with, you may want to sit down and do a Cost Benefit Analysis of the overeating behaviour. On the benefit side, you might indicate that it feels good, sweets taste good, you get some enjoyment from eating. But what are the costs? What are the emotional, psychological and physical consequences to over-eating? Don’t think of the consequences as “bad things you’re doing to yourself”, because that will just make you feel worse, instead just think of consequences as the effects of actions. Actually write them down so you can see them objectively.

Ok, let me summarize those again. Skills to practice:

  1. Feeling your feelings - using a feelings wheel to name and then notice the physical sensations.

  2. Observing your thoughts and identifying thought distortions

  3. Reframing thought distortions.

  4. Learning your patterns - what are your vulnerabilities and triggers that drive the emotional eating event?

  5. Doing a cost benefit analysis.

Now, this was by no means a complete guide to emotional eating because there are many, many more effective cognitive strategies but I don’t have time to cover everything in one night. BUT If you’ll apply some of these principles and actually do the work, you will see some improvement.

I want to be clear - the strategies that I’m mentioning are helpful to prevent emotional eating in advance - not necessarily in the moment. If you can learn to experience the emotions with the tools I’ve taught tonight, then you’ll be much less likely to need to buffer - whether with food, or alcohol, or Netflix, or spending. In the moment, there are other tools that can be helpful like mindful breathing, urge surfing, setting reminders. But that is for another time.

Ok - let me tell you how you can get more support.

f you’re in Ontario, and you have overeating behaviour and it’s affecting your weight, then our clinic, the High Metabolic Clinic would be so happy to support you. Check out our website or send us an email, and we would be very happy to speak with you to see if our program is a good fit.

Awesome friends - that you so much for reading. Have fun feeling all those unpleasant emotions!!!

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