Think about a time when you felt a high level of stress. Maybe there was a period when your job just wore you out, and you felt like you had no control over that aspect of your life. Or maybe a lot of your out-of-town family visited all at once, causing more anxiety than you’re used to. There are many instances where things might weigh heavily on our minds. When we feel high levels of stress, we tend to seek coping mechanisms to distract us from our anxiety.
During stressful times, it’s natural to seek means of mitigating that stress by trying to fill our lives with things that improve our mood. According to Frontiers in Psychology, “eating is a fundamentally rewarding behavior, and is thus intrinsically linked to mood and emotions.” (Frontiers)
Food As A Coping Mechanism
This pattern of instinctively using food as a coping mechanism for stress can encourage you to develop unhealthy eating habits. Creating an unhealthy relationship with food is all too common, and food culture today encourages us to develop physiologically and psychologically driven bad habits.
However, it is possible to break these bad habits. The first step is understanding that you are using food as a coping mechanism. Once you identify this, then you can start to create good habits and improve your relationship with food and your overall health.
According to Mayo Clinic, “Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally.” (Mayo) We use food to deal with stress and boredom, and sometimes to make joy last longer. In the long run, however, overeating because of stress tends to lead to guilt.
Developing a habit of eating as a coping mechanism will inevitably sabotage your weight loss goals. It can lead to a sense of having no control over your health, and may create feelings of self-consciousness. This can, in turn, perpetuate a cycle of further overeating and more stress.
It’s a difficult cycle to break. It may, in fact, be an impossible cycle to break, unless you approach this cycle from a place of treating it at its most fundamental level.
Eating Behavior Psychology
Breaking a habit of overeating is more complicated than simply choosing to eat less. Most of the time, developing a habit of eating as a coping mechanism is based on deep-rooted realities in your personality, some psychological and some physiological.
According to Frontiers in Psychology, the “homeostatic regulation of eating is steadily challenged and overridden by the omnipresence of food and food-related cues. That is, eating can be triggered even in the absence of hunger or extended beyond satiation.” (Frontiers)
Because eating has gained so many dimensions other than mere survival, western and westernized cultures have created a complicated food culture. Not every aspect of that culture is healthy, and in fact, a lot of the socially supported rules of western food culture are actually unhealthy.
Portion sizes tend to be large and the plentifulness of snack foods makes eating between meals feel almost obligatory. The social component of eating has so many layers of peer pressure that some of our eating comes with feelings of guilt. People may ask why you aren’t eating enough, why you didn’t eat enough, etc. At social events, there are certain expectations as well.
As a result, the psychological underpinnings of eating as a coping mechanism are deep-seated in our psyches, and difficult to unwind.
There is hope. Given time and good coaching, anyone can figure out the complicated components of their food psychology and retrain their brains and bodies to embrace a healthier set of habits.
What to Do Instead of Emotional Eating
While simply replacing one habit with another is rarely the solution, it is a place to start talking about how to relearn the rules of society that create unhealthy eating habits.
According to News in Health, “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again,[…]This explains why some people crave drugs, even if the drug no longer makes them feel particularly good once they take it.” (NIH)
What is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that triggers the pleasure response. Understanding that there is a chemical component to any habit is an important part of changing that habit. It may be that finding other coping mechanisms will help with breaking your habit of using food as a coping mechanism. Finding other ways, rather than eating to regulate your dopamine is key.
In the initial stages of breaking emotional eating habits, the most important step is identifying the underlying reasons why you’ve developed these habits in the first place.
The Ultimate Freedom Approach retrains your brain and body to stop relying on food as an emotional crutch. You’ll receive the tools you need to learn how to listen to your body to know what it needs, instead of returning to emotional eating. You will unlearn the rules of dieting so you can experience freedom from food. That snickers bar on your dresser won’t even look tempting, because you’ll have more control over your cravings. Find out what my clients have to say.
Leslie Chen uses the ultimate freedom approach to help you move away from emotional eating. Unlearn anxiety-inducing diet rules so that you can break the chains of an unhealthy relationship with food. Schedule a free consultation with Leslie here.