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Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.
Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

The Cycle of Emotional Eating

The hunger you're experiencing isn't physical, it’s emotional

The emotional roots of comfort food. Image: Flickr/kkmarias

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis(39) of the American Psychological Association. Sue Brekka, MA, MFT, psychotherapist in Los Angeles, submits this post.


Through the experience of nursing and feeding, food and love are paired from birth. That's why now when you feel stressed out or upset, depressed, sad, or angry you may all of a sudden feel hungry. You may be fully aware that you’re not really physically hungry, but nonetheless, you feel “hungry.” So you eat something. Chances are you don’t go for something particularly healthy. That’s because the hunger you're experiencing isn't physical, it’s emotional.

Over the course of a lifetime, we each internalize our own unique experiences in which food provided some sort of emotional as well as physical nurturing. For instance, as a baby, you may have been given a bottle when you were crying, regardless of why you were crying. The baby's mind sends the message that when I am sad or wet, or angry, or uncomfortable, or lonely, people give me food to make me feel better. When you were a kid, ice-cream likely got paired with happy events or celebrations, as well as with “being good,” or having a “good game.” There are as many examples as there are people. Your “comfort food map” is unique to you.

O.k., so back to the cycle… you might debate whether you should eat something, or you may not think much about it at all. Chances are, there’s at least a little bit of negotiation in your mind. You think, “why not, I haven’t eaten that much today?” “Other people can eat this stuff, why can’t I?” Or, “you know what? Yeah, I’m probably eating to soothe my emotions, but WHATEVER! At least I’ll feel better for a few minutes.“ It’s the WHATEVER that tells you you’ve given in to your internal saboteur, and the saboteur is now fully in charge. So you give in to the urge to eat to feel better, and you eat something that’s probably not all that great for you. So now, you’ve just fed your saboteur, who is also your inner bully, and guess what? The bully is now fully fueled and ready to attack.

You may be aware of the attack that follows, or it may happen on a deeper, unconscious level. Either way, somewhere in your inner world, you’re beating yourself up. You’ve just convinced yourself of all of the horrible, mean things that you think about yourself when your bully is let loose. For instance, ”see, this is why I never succeed at a diet.” “I’m weak! No matter how hard I try, I never succeed.” “I’m such a loser.” “I’ll always be the pathetic, fat little sister, who can’t take care of herself.” Again, your internal bully has its own well-worn script that is unique to you. These are things that have also gotten internalized over the course of a lifetime, originating in childhood and usually getting built upon, layer-by-layer by repetitive experience.

If you think about this internal dialogue, this IS “depression.” You feel helpless, and hopeless. You’re angry and it may come out in your driving or other “safe” ways. But in general, the rage is aimed squarely at your own head, because it’s not “safe” to let it out on those around you. You feel tired, sad, lonely, hopeless, and thoroughly convinced that you are an incapable person. You have trouble getting up in the morning, or getting to sleep at night. You don’t follow through on things that you’d like to do, because you have no faith in your ability to succeed. And now… you feel that much worse than you did before, and all of a sudden, you “feel hungry.” And around it goes again.

You might be saying to yourself, “all of that from eating something I shouldn’t? Or just trying to make myself feel a little bit better?” “It can’t be because of that!” “It must be genetic that I feel depressed.” Or “I’m just not a morning person.” Or “maybe my anti-depressant has stopped working… you know that can happen…” “It can’t possibly be because I gave in to the emotional hunger this one time!” “It’s just a cookie!” WRONG! You know how I know? Because I’ve seen what happens when you STOP the cycle. It’s starts spinning in a positive way.

How do you STOP the cycle? In that moment, when you feel a feeling you don’t like, and you all of a sudden feel “hungry,” you know that it’s emotional hunger, not physical hunger. So you wait. You don’t eat anything. If it’s in the middle of the day, you identify the feeling, understand it, and then go back to work or doing something productive. Even taking time out of your day to go for a run or walk is a better choice. Just don’t eat until your next meal. Then, eat your next meal like normal (no more or less than is healthy). Keeping a food and mood journal where you write down your feelings on one side of the page, and your eating and calories/points, etc., on the other side, is really quite critical to “getting” what I’m talking about. You’ll see it on paper within days of stopping the cycle. The journal also helps because you can write down what you’re feeling, thereby putting it somewhere else (out of your head). And you feel proactive, like you’re in control, on top of things. Write down EVERYTHING you eat. Even if you go out to dinner and overeat, go ahead and write it down. It will help you to see how easily that happens, and identify what you might have been feeling at dinner.

So what if it’s late at night? Well if you haven’t been keeping your food journal for that day, go ahead and get it out and write down everything you ate for the day. Total it up and see how many calories you have left, or if you are over your goal (keep it a healthy goal, folks—not restricting crazily). If you’re way under, then you may need to eat something, but make it healthy. But if you are at your goal or over, think about how you are feeling in the moment. Are you really hungry? Are you tired? Sad? Lonely? Angry? Depressed? Nightime can be the hardest time for people with food issues. During the day it’s generally easier to stay distracted with other things. But then at night, all of the things you are feeling can come crashing in on you. And all of a sudden you feel hungry. But are you really? If you have already had plenty to eat, then maybe it’s time to go to bed. If, for whatever reason you can’t go to bed yet, then whatever you do, stay the heck out of the kitchen. Turn off the T.V., computer, iPad, Kindle, phone, etc. And read a book or listen to music. Just allow yourself to relax and wind down. Get out your journal and write down what you are feeling emotionally. Chances are you may need a page or two—nighttime is tough. And then go to bed.

Now see what happens when the alarm goes off in the morning. My experience has been that when you succeed at not giving in to overeating at night, the next morning, it’s a lot easier to get up on-time. You’ll feel more energetic, more capable, and ready to take on the day. Why? Because by not feeding the saboteur the night before, you fed the stronger, healthier part of your mind. You fed your “SELF”! You’ve made yourself feel stronger, more capable, and in-control, and able to deal with the day ahead. Now start all over again, and do the same thing today, and tomorrow. I know it’s hard, but you can do it. Moment by moment, one day at a time. Remember, giving in to the saboteur is NOT AN OPTION! You feed it just a little bit and it will grow into a monster and take over your life. After consistently sticking to the new cycle for a few days or a week, people notice a dramatic improvement in their moods. They are less depressed. They may be just as stressed as the week before, maybe even moreso. Stressors today are very real and valid and don’t just disappear overnight or sometimes for months. However, people feel better able to deal with the stress and any negative emotions that come up. They feel like they have a floor underneath them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “my anti-depressant seems to be working fine now.” And it’s the same anti-depressant they thought had stopped working. Here is your new cycle… and it’s not vicious, it’s invigorating and cathartic! And every day, every moment that you stick with it, you get stronger and more confident, building your self-esteem, strengthening your mental muscle, and growing into the best of yourself. You’ll be amazed at how this permeates other parts of your life, and you’ll find things changing all around you too. One seemingly tiny change turns into something MASSIVE!

About the Author
Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D., is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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