I was inspired to write this post this week after receiving an unexpected message from someone asking for help with this topic. While this is one of the issues I work with on a daily basis in my job as a clinician, this message reminded me just how many people who are not in treatment are struggling with the issue of emotional eating and may not even know the first place to start. I would venture to say that the number of people in the U.S. alone who struggle on some level with emotional eating is in the millions. While the obesity numbers are easy to find (if you agree with the particular metrics being used — and if it’s BMI, count me out), it would be impossible to get an accurate count of emotional eaters because it’s so common that it’s both normalized and underreported.
It’s important to acknowledge that emotional eating is not always a “bad” thing. In this culture and many others, we eat to celebrate, we eat to connect, and we eat to comfort. And you know what? That can be good and soul-nourishing. There’s the old saying, “You should eat to live, not live to eat” — and I only partially agree with that. Food is a great joy in my life, and while my relationship with it has been very out of whack at points in my past, I am now a proud “foodie” and also feel like food has its rightful priority in my life: not too low, not too high. Food no longer has the power to control or ruin my day, or to save the day.
So when do we need to watch out for emotional eating? I’m a firm believer in assessing all things for how workable they are in your life. Behaviors and thoughts are not inherently “good” or “bad.” There will be times that eating based on emotion may take you closer to a rich and fulfilling life — defined in YOUR terms — and there may be times it takes your farther from it. (This concept of “workability” is big in ACT, one of the therapy models I love.) And of course, you can’t really take a step back and ask yourself that question without mindfulness of what you’re feeling and needing in the present moment, which is why mindfulness is a critical skill for this and all parts of life.
If you’re like most of us, there will be times when you know damn well that you’re emotionally eating and that you’re going to feel badly about it later because it does not align with your values or what you truly need in that moment. So what to do when you feel that urge coming on, or catch yourself halfway through a bag of Lay’s?
This is where tangible, actionable strategies come in. Other ways to give yourself the comfort you need in that moment without making things worse for yourself by doing something you’ll regret later. There are tons more than the ones I’ve listed below, and I made some of these a little outside the box because you already know of some of the more obvious ones (though none of us consistently do what we “obviously” know works when we’re struggling in the moment, right?!) like calling a friend or taking a bubble bath.
10 Ways to Self-Soothe Without Food
1) Have a conversation with your 10-year-old self. When I’m feeling too hungry, cranky, tired, stressed, or lonely, my inner 10-year-old comes out to play. I feel just as vulnerable as that little kid, and dammit, I want to feel better and I want it NOW. Sometimes I’ll pull out my journal, draw a line down the middle of the page, and have a dialogue. I ask my 10-year-old, “What’s going on? What are you trying to tell me right now?” and jump to the other side of the page and connect to that younger, vulnerable part of me to respond. You can ask, “How could I support you right now?” or “What is it that you really need right now?” or just offer a little unconditional love: “Hey, I hear you. This day kind of sucks. But I got you. You can go to bed soon and start over tomorrow.” (I’m definitely a fan of inner child work, if you can’t tell.)
2) Send a message of appreciation to 5 people in your life. A simple text or email will do. Tell them something that you love or value about them. Sometimes, giving back in small ways can reconnect you in the moment with what really matters and give you a mood boost.
3) Throw yourself a tea party. Keep some really nice teas in stock in your pantry. When a craving comes on that makes you immediately want to reach for food, try inviting yourself to a special tea party instead. If anyone else is around, invite them, too. Otherwise, invite yourself out loud! Turn on some fancy classical music and take your time slowly, mindfully preparing the tea, noticing each step of the process with each of your five senses. Light a few candles and bring one of your favorite classic novels like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights. (Or how about some Little House on the Prairie?)
4) Walk down the block and back. Slowly. Aware of each step.Sometimes, all you need to do is move your body a small amount for a shift in perspective. Move a muscle, change a thought. If you’re caught up in your mind while walking, imagine that your thoughts come and go, like each new step.
5) Try a new guided meditation. I love guided meditations, and right now I’m really digging the ones from Sarah Brooke, Heather Waxman (also available on Spotify), and Belinda Davidson’sGuided Chakra Cleanse for Busy People. Also, the Calm.com website and app are pretty awesome; the app is about $10 a year and you get over 40 guided meditations on different topics and can choose 2, 5, and 10 minute lengths depending on how much time you have. In the app world, I also have to mention the ACT Companion smartphone app which has awesome brief guided meditations and exercises to help center you in a moment where you’re really struggling. Chances are, especially if you do a meditation that’s longer than 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll be in a different frame of mind afterward and at least have the ability to call someone for support if you didn’t feel like you could beforehand.
6) Draw your feelings and your needs. Divide a piece of paper down the middle (maybe a big one, if you have it), and on one side, visually — without using words — represent your current emotional state. On the other side, represent what you feel like your needs are in that moment. This is both simple and profound. Use colors (pens, crayons, markers) to help you be more expressive. Not an artist? Doesn’t matter. Use symbols, abstract shapes, whatever.
7) Chug a glass of water and brush your teeth. Sometimes, sensations of hunger can actually be related to thirst and dehydration. So get some water in your system and brush your teeth for that feeling of recharge / freshness. Simple and straightforward.
8) Write a love letter to your current self from you future self one year from today. Put pen to paper (maybe even some nice stationary) and imagine writing from Future You, one year from now, and you’ve made significant changes in your life with your relationship with food, your body, (you name it). Write about how grateful you are to your past self (which is truly your current self — go with me here!) for loving yourself enough to get your needs met without always turning to old shadow comforts. Write about what it feels like to trust yourself with food, to value your body, to feel the freedom of not being controlled by your cravings.
10) Ride the wave. In the addiction / eating disorder treatment world, we talk a lot about “riding the wave” of urges or “urge surfing". What would happen if — instead of acting on the craving, fighting it head-on, or trying to “get rid of” it, you just let it be exactly what it was in the moment and observed it? You could find a place to sit quietly (outdoors or with your feet on the ground is even better) and just noticed everything showing up for you at that moment. If the urge had a color, what color would it be? What shape, or temperature? Does it make a sound? Is it moving or still? Where do you feel it in your body? Observe the urge like a curious scientist without trying to change it. Periodically tune in to your breath and check in with any parts of your body that you might be tensing/gripping that could release. The craving may diminish in short order, and it may not. The goal is not to make it go away, but to be with it and observe it. And simply the practice you get of riding the wave will give you more power over cravings like this the more often you practice it.