Nowadays only a few of us see food purely as a source of nutrition for our bodies. Food is generally associated with pleasure, reward and a whole range of human emotions and conditions. Just think of all the images of popular culture depicting people eating cartons of ice cream after a break up or sipping tea in order to fill up uncomfortable silences.
Emotional Eating: Why Does It Happen?
According to popular culture, the problem in these situations is that we as humans are experiencing distressing or uncomfortable feelings. The general idea that has been projected is that certain types of distress are so scary, overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, intense and unbearable that they need to be counteracted and numbed out with the power of comforting food.
We are therefore supposed to fear allowing this discomfort to break into our consciousness and we are often warned about all possible consequences - getting depressed and not being able to climb out of it, being shamed about exposing our feelings or losing our integrity. These ideas are generally harmful and creating a false conception of what emotions really are as well as their function. Additionally, we are falsely fed into the notion that unpleasant emotions need to be reduced, controlled or immediately replaced by pleasant ones.
What is Emotional Eating?
In essence, all emotions have the same intrinsic purpose and value. Namely, to signal us about the state of our needs. Unpleasant emotions are as common as pleasant ones since they serve the same purpose. However, as humans it is also absolutely natural for us to have the urge to reduce or relieve them. This is why we often resort to quick fixes or ways to 'cope' through suppression, distraction, cigarettes, alcohol or food.
If food becomes a common strategy for emotional regulation, we are talking about the so-called emotional eating. This type of strategy is doomed to fail in the long run, as the problem that the food was supposed to solve is not fully being addressed. The more we rely on food to cope with unpleasant feelings, the more we disconnect from ourselves and from our true emotional needs.
Emotional Eating Patterns Explained
Research points out that dysfunctional eating patterns are often linked to attempts to control our unwanted emotions and moods. Also, people with dysfunctional eating patterns have difficulty recognizing their emotions and also demonstrate a high degree of avoidance and suppression of their emotional experiences. In fact, what influences emotional eating and overeating more than anything else is the difficulty in identifying and understanding emotions. When we experience intense emotional states but have difficulties identifying them, we become unable to respond effectively. Thus, we often resort to food in an effort to alleviate this discomfort.
Emotion Regulation & Eating
Practicing emotion regulation can help us untangle our dysfunctional eating patterns. But, why is it that some of us experience difficulties with emotional regulation? And why is this problem so common? There are a few possible variables that affect our capacity for emotional regulation.
First of all, some of us are born with a nervous system that is more sensitive and leads to experiencing certain emotions more intensely than others.
In another common scenario, we grew up among people who were unable to teach us how to notice, name, and respond to our emotional states in a healthy way. In the absence of such an environment, most of us are left with the underdeveloped skills to effectively regulate our emotions. Rather, our emotions were interpreted as something bad and/or dangerous. For example, our parents or loved ones may have criticized, condemned, or ignored us when we felt sad or angry. When we were afraid, they might have told us "don't think about it", "there is nothing to worry about" or "everything will be fine". This is how the idea that emotions are something that should be avoided or concealed is imprinted into our young minds and subsequently, prevents us from learning how to respond more effectively.
Another possible explanation is that some of us have had one or many traumatic experiences. Often when we have experienced a traumatic event in our life, our brain goes into a permanent alarm mode, which makes us constantly alert for potential risks and hazards. This constant stress added to our nervous system makes us less able to respond effectively to our experiences and more likely to seek relief from this unpleasant state (aka emotional eating).
Sources: The Emotional Eating Workbook - A Proven-Effective, Step-by-Step Guide to End Your Battle with Food and Satisfy Your Soul, Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH
Written by Rositsa Stoycheva.
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