This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 11, 2014.
Your brain’s been hijacked! You just blindly shoved a sweet, crunchy chocolate into your mouth. For a moment it gave you satisfaction, soothing and other yummy sensations. But then came the guilt: “I did it again! Where was my will power?” You weren’t even that hungry. How did that even happen? Feeling powerless to control your cravings, instead, you gave in to them. Can you make a different choice next time? Of course you can, and you will. Read on to learn how.
Emotional eating can begin in childhood, when food becomes your parents’ favorite tools of distraction and reward, wielded in response to various emotions and behaviors that you exhibited. As a baby, they silenced your cries with a bottle. As a child, they rewarded your good behavior with candy, snacks, ice cream and various sugary desserts. As an adult, you may find yourself eating certain junk foods just because it reminds you of some happy childhood memory.
Holidays and special occasions invariably revolve around food. There, you overeat for pleasure as a way to emphasize the festivity of the holiday, to fully enjoy it and “take it all in.” Or you may use food for comfort and distraction, to ease the pain and soothe yourself at a tension-filled family gathering.
Food can also be a way in which you subconsciously self-sabotage. It is your brain’s job to protect your identity and your belief systems. When reality does not match your perceptions, your brain will do everything it can to resolve the inconsistency. If you see yourself as fat and unworthy, when you start losing a few pounds and gaining some momentum with your diet, guess what? You will fall into self-sabotage and overeat. Your unconscious mind is “helping” you bring reality and your self-image into alignment. To explain it another way, think of your brain as if it were a thermostat. When you set a thermostat, the heater or A/C kicks in to adjust the temperature accordingly, and that temperature is maintained indefinitely. Similarly, if your mental “thermostat” is set to you weighing 170 pounds, when you drop to 135 pounds, your brain’s thermostat will revert to self-sabotage to bring you back to the weight you imagine/expect of yourself.
Food can be a coping mechanism for trauma. Your extra fat might be a physical representation of the emotional shield that you built around yourself. When you start shedding it, it can trigger you to feel unprotected and overly vulnerable. Thus, you build it back up.
The power of our subconscious is exploited constantly by the food industry in their marketing. They perfect the taste, smell and texture of the food in order to keep us addicted. Eating becomes about coping instead of nourishment. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” according to Snickers. “Come hungry, leave happy,” promises IHOP. “Every dinner should feel this good,” says Stouffer’s. Who wouldn’t want to “Cheer up your lunch” with Oreos? The list goes on and on. It’s insidious. (The bestselling book Salt Sugar Fat is a great read on U.S. food companies exploiting our emotional eating.)
Whether you are emotionally eating to feel better or because you lack the confidence to accept a healthier you, read on for 12 tips that will help you master your emotions and conquer emotional eating.
1. Change the story you are telling yourself.
You are talking to yourself all day long. Not out loud, but inside your head. That little voice never shuts up! It incessantly overanalyzes, self-criticizes, disempowers and misinterprets. If the erroneous story you tell yourself is “I feel deprived when I avoid eating snacks,” then change it to something more empowering like “I’m proud of myself for taking care of my body and saying no to these unhealthy snacks!” Making a conscious choice to change the story you tell yourself will change your brain’s interpretation of the situation and induce positive emotions. It sure beats the flood of negative emotions that the old story would have induced. This takes practice, so don’t give up when you slip back into the negative self-talk! Simply jump back on the wagon. For those of you into psychology, you may be already familiar with this re-framing technique as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.
And if you still hear your inner critic calling you “fat” or ridiculing you for your appearance, then try this exercise: First, tell your inner critic, “Thank you for sharing,” and then close your eyes and imagine a more pleasant sounding inner voice saying something positive and empowering. Repeat as necessary until you no longer hear that negative self-talk. Essentially, you are wrestling control away from the unpleasant inner critic who isn’t even you.
2. Change your reward system.
Disconnect food from your reward system, and start rewarding yourself with other fulfilling activities. For example: go for a walk, buy something on your wish list or treat yourself to a massage or bubble bath.
3. Changing your mind is key to changing your body.
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a powerful system for reprogramming your mind. Try out this NLP exercise for breaking the pleasurable associations you have with your favorite snacks: First, close your eyes. Think of a favorite food that you are trying to avoid. Perhaps you cannot stop bingeing on pizza, for example? Now, think about something that disgusts you. Let’s say you are grossed out by spiders and cockroaches. Now envision that delicious pizza that you love so much, with spiders and roaches crawling out of the steamy melted cheese. The more real, big and vivid you make this “video” in your minds eye, the harder it will be to desire that fattening pizza that you used to crave so much.
4. Treat yourself as you would an adored little child.
We wouldn’t dream of treating a stranger, let alone an adored child, as harshly as we treat ourselves sometimes. Have you ever berated yourself over something silly? Said unkind things to yourself that made you feel worthless? For the love of all things holy, please treat your self with love, respect and kindness! Make it your mission to protect your emotional being. Feeling safe, strong and protected dissolves emotional eating.
5. Create little success habits.
Develop new empowering habits such as exercising at a regular time or writing down your small successes as you achieve them. This will trigger your brain to release endorphins, which will, in turn, get you addicted to exercising and staying healthy.
6. Keep your commitment to yourself
You are training yourself to follow through, to keep your promises to yourself, to accomplish the goals that will lead to a healthier you. When you get used to keeping your promises to yourself, you become self-motivated, driven from the inside.
7. Don’t keep junk around
Life is easier with fewer temptations around. Did you know that willpower is a finite resource, and that it depletes over the course of the day? Keeping a jar of cookies around wastes valuable willpower that could be used instead to work on major life goals. Don’t just put the cookies out of view, because your brain knows they are still within easy reach. Instead, get rid of the cookies altogether – as in throw them in the trash! You will save so much willpower. Rather than deprive yourself of snacks altogether, you can stock your fridge and pantry with healthy options (mini carrots, anyone?).
8. Create a new identity
Create an alter ego or an avatar, a new 2.0 version of yourself with the traits of the person you want to become. Visualize that new strong, happy, and secure version of yourself easily managing various emotions without running to the fridge. Adopting a new, healthier, more empowered identity can alter any number of troublesome behaviors, not just overeating.
9. Reduce stress
Being on a diet is stressful. So is striving to be like someone else, whether it is a celebrity on TV or your friend who posted a bikini picture of herself on Facebook. Trying to be someone else can drive you crazy. There is a lot of pressure these days for us to look a certain way, especially for women. If you are the type of person who succumbs to this pressure and emotionally overeats, you’ll need to de-stress. Try some relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, or even just chilling by the pool. Watch a funny movie; laughter really is the best medicine. Stress triggers junk food cravings and releases the hormone cortisol, which stores fat in your body! Aim to stay happy and relaxed.
Breathing not only relaxes you, it can clear your mind of the negative emotions that drive you to overeat. Here is a simple breathing exercise that you can do anytime you feel overwhelmed: sit with your eyes closed in a comfortable position with your back straight. Place your hand on your stomach and take deep breaths through your nose, exhale slowly through the mouth. Continue this for at least 3 to 5 minutes. In this relaxed state, your junk food cravings will dissipate.
11. Make it a conscious choice
For some people it is just a matter of making a conscious decision and sticking to it. Make a list of all the pros and cons for emotional eating. Focusing on your goals will strengthen your resolve to create lasting change in your life.
12. Change your value system
Make a decision to value your health over immediate satisfaction, to value the long term over the short term. Living in a body that is healthy, slim and agile is more satisfying than the instant gratification you get from binge eating.
Unhealthy overeating can stem from emotions that don’t serve you. The good news is you are in control of your emotions. Determine your emotional triggers, look out for those triggers and take charge over your mind and body. Achieving mastery over your emotions is a learned skill; with practice, you will get better and better at it. That will then show up in the way you feel and the way you look. I bet you can’t wait!