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Caroline Schmidt, Ph.D., LPC

Clinician's Corner

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating
By Caroline Schmidt, Ph.D., LPC

You feel distressed, so you eat to comfort yourself. Then you feel guilty for eating, and the guilt becomes distressing. So you eat to comfort yourself..... Sound familiar?

Emotional eating can become a vicious cycle. In order to free yourself from this cycle, you must recognize when you are eating in response to physical hunger versus when you are eating in order to avoid your feelings. Once you are able to do this, you will feel more at peace by providing your body with the nourishment it needs and dealing with your emotions in a healthier and more productive manner. 

In working with clients who struggle with emotional eating, I have found 7 steps that are especially helpful for making lasting changes: 

Step 1: Strengthen Your Mind-Body Connection
Start listening to your body to figure out what it really needs. Work on increasing self-awareness. How do you feel before, during and after eating? Exercising? Relaxing? Meditation, yoga, martial arts, mental body scans and mindfulness activities are excellent methods for improving your mind-body connection.

Step 2: Differentiate Between Physical and Emotional Hunger
Do you feel hungry in your stomach or in your mouth? Do you desire a feeling of fullness in your stomach, or merely the taste of food in your mouth? If you arenít truly hungry, eating ultimately wonít make you feel better. It will just provide a temporary distraction. Eat only when you are physically hungry- not when you are bored, feeling social pressure or think you should because itís lunchtime. 

Step 3: Identify and Experience Your Emotions
If you arenít actually feeling hungry, then what are you feeling? ďFeeling fatĒ isnít an emotion. Emotional eating is a form of avoiding and displacing your true feelings. Keeping a journal, talking with a therapist and confiding in your family or friends are all good ways to identify and process your emotions. Itís always interesting to review my clientsí journal entries with them. I have found that many clients realize that they are actually feeling anxiety, sadness or fear when they seem compelled to eat. Itís liberating once you learn to fully experience and then overcome the distress you are feeling. 

Step 4: Eat What You Really Want
If you are craving chocolate, eating all of the rice cakes in the world will not leave you feeling satisfied. Whereas eating one ounce of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate probably would satisfy you. Try to identify what you are hungry for before you see, smell or taste food. If you eat only what you are hungry for, when you are hungry, you will maximize your pleasure from eating. 

Step 5: Notice How You Feel After You Eat
Observe how your body feels after you finish eating. Do you feel satisfied? Energized? Sluggish? Too full? Remember how it feels to be uncomfortably full; imprint that feeling in your mind. Eating should be pleasurable. Overeating can turn eating into an unpleasant experience.

Step 6: Think of Eating as Making a Conscious Decision with Consequences
In other words, take the judgment out of eating. Eating should not be about following or breaking rules. Stop labeling foods as good or bad. Instead of telling yourself what you are and are not allowed to eat, think of eating as simply making a conscious choice based on what your body is telling you and how you want your body to feel.

Step 7: Focus on Other Things in Life that Make You Happy
Focus your time and energy on other activities you enjoy so eating isnít the only thing you have to look forward to. By focusing solely on dieting and eating, you become obsessed with self-deprival and self-indulgence. Start a hobby, take a class, join a club, set goals for yourself that are unrelated to weight loss. When you feel good about who you are and what you are doing, you wonít have to eat to try to make yourself feel better. 

Emotional eating is actually a symptom of another problem. It is important to figure out what the real problem is and find other ways to cope with it. Psychotherapy may be helpful as you discover and address the concerns underlying your emotional eating. Remember, be gentle with yourself. We develop most of our habits over time, and so it takes time to change them. I encourage my clients to be both patient and persistent. It is also important to try to maintain your sense of hope and your sense of humor.

Caroline Schmidt, Ph.D., LPC, practices at the Milwaukee location of Cornerstone Counseling Services. She can be reached at 262-542-3255 ext. 340.

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