When weight-loss professionals discuss emotional eating, you hear a lot of talk about stimulus control, stress management techniques, and cognitive reframing. This is all well and good (and you’ll be hearing some of that here), but it doesn’t quite capture the actual experience of being caught up in an episode of emotional eating.
Here is what it really feels like, at least in my experience. You’re doing okay, cruising along, when suddenly something happens that stirs up a bunch of feelings, and all of a sudden the Beast is awake and eating everything it can get its hands on. Or maybe it isn’t always that dramatic—maybe you just get bored, or start feeling a little anxious because there is nothing going on to distract you from that vague sense of impending doom that always seems to be lurking just under the surface. Even that little bit of free-floating anxiety can be enough to wake the Beast up and set it on the prowl for something to eat. Or it might be as simple as getting home from work or school, or finding yourself alone for a little while, after a hard day. Whatever the trigger might be, the Beast isn’t about to go back to sleep without doing some serious eating first. Or so the story normally goes.
There are two basic and complimentary approaches you can use to tame the Beast before it trashes your food plan, and you’ll need both for long-term success. The difference between them is the same as the difference between emergency medicine and preventive medicine. The main focus here will be on coping with the immediate emergency.
When the Beast is Loose: Getting It Back in Its Cage
The bad news here is that will power has little effect on controlling emotional eating. From a psychological perspective, the shift into emotional eating mode is usually a "state-dependent" event, which is a fancy way of saying that it involves shifting into a different state of consciousness (or persona) with its own independent set of emotions and related thinking patterns. For a little while, you literally aren’t your normal self, and the normal tricks you use to manage your behavior and thinking may not work.
The good news is that your Emotional Eating Beast is a pretty dim-witted critter, and you can trick it into going back where it came from without too much effort, if you know how to do it. Here are some tricks that usually work:
- Play the Stalling Game. Your Beast has a very short attention span, and if you can manage to stall it for just a few minutes on its way to the kitchen, it will often forget why it woke up in the first place, and happily go back where it came from. Instead of trying to fight it and tell it that it can’t have what it wants, just tell it to hang on for five minutes and wait until you’re done doing what you’re doing. If necessary, you can usually get away with stalling like this two to three times before things start to get ugly, and most of the time, that 10 to 15 minutes will be plenty long enough for your Beast to forget the whole business and go back to sleep.
- Play the Distraction/Substitution Game. If your Beast doesn’t fall for the Stalling Game, you can still use your superior mental capacities to keep the upper hand. The key here is to keep in mind that what your Beast really wants isn’t food, but emotional comfort. If you can find ways to comfort yourself that don’t involve food, the need to eat will go away very quickly. Find something you enjoy doing that’s simple and easy to do right away. Listen to soothing or inspirational music, take a hot bath or a nice walk around the block, grab the phone and chat with a friend, or do some inspirational reading—you get the idea. Think of the Beast as a young child who just woke up from a nightmare, and of yourself as the parent looking for a way to help your child calm down and realize that it was all just a bad dream.
- Play the Good Beast/ Bad Beast Game. Even though the Beast may seem powerful and overwhelming, it is just as afraid of you as you are of it. It knows full well that you can and, someday, probably will just tell it to go take a hike, and that will be the end of the game. To postpone this unhappy day for as along as possible, the Beast is always willing to negotiate with you if you can muster up enough nerve to stare it in the eye and demand some sort of compromise you can live with. If you keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks that won’t kill your diet and your self-respect, and you let the Beast get its hands on them, then you can both stay relatively happy—until that day when you’re ready to finally toss the Beast out and change the locks.