Digesting Emotional Eating

“One of the most common causes of overeating and weight gain is difficulty regulating our emotions, our moods, our thoughts, and even disruptive impulses and behaviors.” – Julie M. Simon

emotional eating 

The One You Feed

It’s ironic that my first shout-out to Eric Zimmer and Chris Forbes’s The One You Feed podcast is literally about how we feed ourselves.

Mr. Zimmer starts each of his interviews by asking his guests what this parable means in their life and work.

There’s a grandmother talking with her granddaughter, and she says, “In life there are two wolves inside of us that are always at battle. One is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness, and bravery, and love. And the other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, and hatred, and fear.”

And the granddaughter stops and she thinks about it for a second, looks up at her grandmother, and says, “Well, grandmother? Which one wins?”

And the grandmother says, “The one you feed.”

What We Feed Our Wolves

Julie M. Simon, author of When Food is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, answers that every day of our lives we have pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We react with emotions and bodily sensations, including muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, and thoughts.

These reactions can lead to self-defeating thoughts, moods like anxiety and excessive sadness, hopelessness, and despair, which all feed the bad wolf.

Or we can develop habits to respond with self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love that feed the good wolf.

De-Regulation

The underlying cause of emotional eating is our brain’s inability to modulate our nervous system’s response to emotions and moods. This robs us of the ability to think before we act.

In order to self-regulate, we need to have the upstairs part of our brain (the logical, calming, reasoning part, aka the regulator) properly wired to the downstairs part (our emotion center).

Ms. Simon talks about the role our infancy plays in this crucial wiring. If our parents are skillful nurturers, they attune to our needs by interpreting our cries of distress: hunger, indigestion, soiled diaper, fear, pain, worry.

As we acquire language, our parents help us find language to interpret our emotions: like sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness. This allows us to co-regulate our responses by communicating our feelings so that our parents can customize solutions: giving us a hug, teaching us to take a few deep breaths, offering reassurance, or arranging a play date.

This early nurturing forges connections between the brain’s regulator and emotion center, giving us the neuronal pathways and emotional intelligence we need to right our ship after an emotional storm.

The Missing Link of Co-Regulation

What many of us who turn to overeating miss out on is this co-regulation phase.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame our parents for this because the science on co-regulation’s role in early brain development is twenty-first century stuff. If our early role models learned the virtues of comforting themselves with  food, they likely passed them on to us.

Beyond the evolutionary caloric allure of comfort food, we may have learned to associate cake with birthday parties, cookies with Christmas presents, trips to get ice cream with good report cards.   

Disconnection

The good news about emotional eating is that it works! It temporarily makes us feel better.

If I accidentally hit myself with a hammer, eating a bag of potato chips will make me feel better.

Instead of beating ourselves up for our inability to resist comfort food, Ms. Simon suggests that we should congratulate ourselves for our resourcefulness. Not only isn’t it our fault that we missed out on early brain development, we engineered a workaround.     

The Disconnection Problem

The problem with emotional eating, according to Ms. Simon, is that emotions and bodily sensations are like street signs that point us in the direction of our needs. Disconnecting with comfort food shuts down the signal without decoding the message.

Addictions are responses to unmet needs that come with short-term benefits but long term consequences.

To develop more effective coping skills with fewer side effects, and to begin meeting our needs, we must learn to reconnect to our emotions.

How to Re-Connect

Fortunately, the brain never stops rewiring itself in response to our experiences. We can learn to connect our regulating and emotional brain centers even as adults.

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old human.   

A Rewiring Manual

Ms. Simon’s book offers seven steps for learning self-nurturing to develop a supportive inner voice. I’m eager to test drive her exercises to learn her approach to topics I’ve explored on this site.

  1. Pop the Hood: Name and Track Emotions and Bodily Sensations.
  2. Practice Self-Validation
  3. Reinforce the Alliance and Offer Love, Support, and Comfort
  4. Get Clear on Needs
  5. Catch and Reframe Self-Defeating Thoughts
  6. Highlight Resources and Provide Hope
  7. Address Needs and Set Nurturing Limits
Ten Minute Exercise

Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offers an exercise to notice the emotions that trigger over eating. It’s called SiBerian North RailRoad (STOP, BREATHE, NOTICE, REFLECT, RESPOND) .

  1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
  2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
  3. Take three deep breaths to settle the mind.
  4. Let your awareness follow your in and and out breaths.
  5. Bring to mind a recent experience that triggered emotional eating. Try to relive the event and the related sensations as fully as you can.
  6. At the moment you find yourself trying to escape the feeling: STOP.
  7. BREATHE slow, deep breaths with full exhales for at least thirty seconds.
  8. NOTICE any difference of tension or temperature that the emotion creates in your face, neck, shoulders, chest, back, etc. Experience the emotion as a physiological phenomenon, not as a state of being:
    “I’m experiencing anger in my body” instead of “I am angry.”
  9. If this emotion is triggered by another person’s actions, put yourself in the position of that person looking out at you. REFLECT that everybody wants to be happy. This person thinks acting this way will make him/her happy. Don’t judge whether this person is right or wrong in this belief.
  10. Bring to mind the kindest most positive RESPONSE (other than eating) to this situation. Don’t worry about actually doing it. Take a minute to craft a response.
  11. Return to the present moment with awareness of the breath until the timer sounds.
  12. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

To learn more about Julie M. Simon’s approach: here’s a five-minute on emotional eating.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.