In therapy: emotional eating

Our resident columnist, psychotherapist Jess Henley PGDip., MA, offers advice on how to manage emotion-driven eating habits
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So, what is it?

Do you often find yourself reaching for the biscuit tin in tough times, even when you’re not hungry? This is emotional eating. You’re most likely using food as a way to suppress unwanted emotions such as anxiety, frustration or boredom. So there’s probably a lot of biscuit (or banana bread) eating going on right now! In extraordinary times like these, it’s important to be gentle to yourself and cut yourself some slack. But if you feel your emotional eating is getting the better of you, read on.

How does it manifest?

Each time you swallow another mouthful of your chosen ‘treat’, you are, in effect, trying to swallow back down your difficult emotions so that you don’t have to feel them. But then the guilt of overeating kicks in and this can drive you to feel all sorts of added emotions, such as shame and self-disgust. These can re-trigger emotional eating, and the whole cycle starts again. That’s why diets don’t work for a lot of people: if you don’t have conscious control over what’s making you eat, no amount of nutritional knowledge will change this.

How to tackle it

Breaking the habit can be extremely hard – we need to eat to live, so it can be very challenging to step away from problem foods. The good news is, it is possible. It’s about making the unconscious emotions that are driving your comfort eating conscious, then you can work through them and let them go.

Identify your triggers

Every time you reach for your emotional food of choice, notice what’s happening around you and write it down. Also, note what time of day it is. After a few weeks, you may see a pattern emerging, which will help you identify what makes you feel most vulnerable – and when – around food.

Begin to understand what emotion you’re avoiding

Instead of trying to cut out the habit straight away, pause for a few minutes before allowing yourself to give in to your food craving. Think about what feeling comes up when you pause. This helps pinpoint the thoughts you’re avoiding. Once you know what they are, you can slowly start to work through them, instead of suppressing them with food.

Build up on other healthy habits

If you’re feeling stronger in other aspects of your life, then you won’t feel so vulnerable around food. Practise meditation every day, even if just for five minutes in the morning before your shower (try the Headspace app if you’re new to meditation). And make sure you exercise regularly and get as much restful sleep as you can.

Be kind to yourself

Remember, these habits are hard to break, so give yourself time to work through your emotions properly. There isn’t a quick fix and you’re most likely dealing with difficult emotions, so there may be times when you relapse. That’s OK. As long as you know you’re trying your best, it doesn’t matter how many times you need to pause, then start again. If you keep going, you’ll get there.

If your thoughts are spiralling out of control and you feel excessively anxious or depressed, talk to your GP. Or contact SANEline, a mental health helpline, at sane.org.uk.