Thursday, 24 May 2012

Are we all emotional eaters?

I often used to eat when I was bored.  What I used to find uncomfortable, no, make that intolerable, about being bored were the feelings of frustration and low level anxiety that accompanied the boredom, when I didn't fill every single moment of my day with something (anything) to do. The more I listened to the quiet whispers of my mind, when I did have a lull in activity, the quiet little voice that said  "you should be doing something, you are nothing if you are doing nothing, who are you anyway? You're not good enough, you should do more not less, prove yourself, get it right, be beyond reproach, make sure you are approved of and admired, keep going, come on, don't stop, it's not enough, you're not enough ...." the more anxious and frustrated I felt. And eating, as always, distracted me from those feelings and those thoughts.

My overeating had a very clear pattern. I'd head straight for the fridge when I arrived home after work (in my pre-chidlren days) and stand there are the fridge thinking "What can I have?" I used to overeat in the evenings after dinner, once everything I needed to do was done and I could finally sit down. I used to overeat at night, in bed, before I went to sleep. I used to overeat whenever I was alone. No rhyme or reason, just me alone meant I would overeat. It was like a mathematical formula. Sophie + alone = overheating  (s+a=o) I always had a croissant or Danish with my coffee, a few biscuits or some chocolate with my tea. I always had another helping of pasta or seconds of pudding. I would always eat the whole sandwich, both halves, finish every crisp in the pack, every square in the bar of chocolate. I didn't really question these habits, so were they were just that, just habits? Not emotional eating or comfort eating, just habits?

Well, that may be one way to look at it.  Today I see it a little differently. They may well have become habits (dictionary definition - regular or settled tendency or practice, especially one that it hard to give up) and, the way I think of it today, any behaviour that becomes a habit is a behaviour that, originally, I created for a reason. It had a purpose once, even if as time goes by I stop associating that behaviour with its original purpose and it just feels like a habit. So, while it may not be directly driven by feelings or emotions they played a part in me creating the habit in the first place. The fact that I habitually took food to bed with me, to eat and read before I feel asleep, may not have be directly triggered by any feelings of anxiety that I was aware of at the time, and at some stage when first I chose to take food to bed the food had a function, it did a job.

Here's the thing about habits. Even if we don't identify any feelings associated with them, NOT doing what we've always done WILL engender a feeling. Not taking food to bed when it has always been my habit to do so will leave me feeling something... In my experience that was fear! Not finishing every square in the bar of chocolate will leave me feeling... longing, wanting, sad. Not hugely, heart-wrenchingly sad, just a little sad. Even though I know I can have chocolate whenever I like, I will have an emotional response of some sort when I choose to stop when my impulse, my habit, is to finish it off. If I tell myself it's just a habit that I have to break and simply stop doing it, or doing something else instead or talking myself out of the need for the habit without recognising how I feel, ignoring the fear or anxiety or sadness (however mild or slight), numbing myself to my emotions, I  know, for myself, from my experience, that I will turn to other behaviours and create new habits to deal with the situations, emotions and thoughts that my eating originally helped me to manage. Because even when I don’t acknowledge the feelings or recognise them, they are there and I cannot hold on to them indefinitely without some kind of outlet or some way to numb them. If I am not willing to see that my eating in bed provided a comfort, a moment of numbness, a buffer between me and sleep, the dreaded nothingness of the night, that scary moment when I really let myself do nothing at all, if I ignore all that and just stop eating, summoning willpower and resolve, that anxiety will come out somewhere else. Of that I have no doubt. If, on the other hand, I am willing to recognise that I am an emotional being, I feel, all the time, and if I am willing to acknowledge how the food helps in that moment and allow myself to be with that fear or the anxiety or whatever the feeling, to work with it, just for a minute, I will be dealing with the real issue. Not the food or the eating, but the fear itself, the fear which drives my eating and my habits. And if I can make friends with that fear, if I can trust myself to be with it and know that it will not swallow me up, that it will not destroy me, then I no longer need the habit of eating to numb myself. Choosing not to overeat may even feel liberating, joyful, exciting and empowering and, a Brene Brown so rightly says, we cannot numb our emotions selectively.  When we numb anger, sadness and fear we numb our capacity to truly feel joy and happiness.

A habit is just another word for a behaviour driven by thoughts or feelings which we don't know how to stop doing and don't always understand the reasons for.  In my experience getting to the root of the habit, working out what it does (or did) for us and dealing with THAT is the key. Recognising that even those moments when we eat and cannot for the life of us work out what is behind it, will leave us feeling something when we STOP doing it. Which means that all our eating, in some way or other, is emotional. We may not always be aware of it but we are always, always feeling something. We are, I believe, all emotional eaters because we are all emotional women and in everything we do and experience, our thoughts, our emotions and our physical bodies are involved. All the time! And I think that is something to celebrate not shy away from. I am proud to call myself emotional and grateful to have recognised and worked with my emotional eating habits.


  1. What an insightful blog - thank you!! I really relate to what you are saying and something I knew I already but seeing it in black and white coming from somemone else just makes so much more sense. Thank you! Will be prinitng this off to read when I am feeling the need to eat when I'm alone. Katie

  2. That is a really thought provoking piece. It has made me question why I feel I can admit to eating when emotional; stressed, tired, upset and so on but find it incredibly shameful to admit to eating when bored. Right! I've said it now!
    I too will print off your blog and (wo)man up to facing this. Thank you.

  3. This blog has put another piece in the puzzle for me to understanding my overeating. Its amazing to read something that I feel I have always known but never put together for myself. Thanks Sophie. I need to find the courage to pause and feel those feelings I am so afraid of.

  4. Very useful and thought-provoking, thanks Sophie! What I found interesting was that even changing a habit can trigger emotions - even if there was no particular 'trauma' behind the original habit!


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