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What We Really Crave When We Stress Eat

How to stop emotional eating.

Food and emotion go hand in hand. It makes sense: Food is warm, appealing, sustaining and comforting. It closely resembles empathy.

Eating mindlessly is common and often defensive. “I have one cupcake and I cannot stop myself. Before I realize it, I have devoured three more,” says a client who worries about stress eating.

“Zoning out” while eating may indicate mild disassociation is at play. Dissociation is a universal defense mechanism and in small doses, such as daydreaming, occasionally spacing out, or driving on autopilot, may be harmless. Unconsciously, it is employed to mitigate feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and upset.

Dissociation may be intricately connected to stress eating. A mild dissociative state leaves a person feeling less present and grounded. The realization that eating is not an actual source of emotional comfort may be lost for a moment and the compulsion to soothe prevails.

Yet intense shame may follow and the negative emotions a person attempted to “eat away” remain. Nothing has been alleviated.

Frequently, when overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious, a person needs empathy. Talking and feeling understood and connected to another person allows a person to feel less alone in his or her plight and close to the person who “gets it.” The empathy soothes and fortifies a person.

As I spoke with a client recently, she stated, “I have a supportive husband, but he is the last person I want to talk to when I am stressed.”

I reassured her that I understood what she meant and described the difference between support and empathy. I explained that empathy is not pity, nor is it lending advice or rescuing someone from a problem. Empathy occurs when a person actively listens to authentically understand another person’s experience, then communicates this understanding.

For example, “Lisa, you are angry and upset that your colleague embarrassed you at the meeting today. What he did was not okay. You are dreading going to work tomorrow. I get it. You have every right to be upset. I would be too.”

Following empathy, some encouragement, advice, or a good joke about the situation may help.

For example, “Lisa, what would help? Want to take a walk or go for a drive? We can blast some angry music and sing our lungs out.”

The empathy and company may soothe a troubled heart, so the person feels less alone, more empowered, and equipped to rectify a problem.

Talking about an internal struggle and receiving emotional sustenance may be the most effective way to feel soothed and remain grounded, which additionally prevents dissociation from intensifying.

Locating and accessing an empathic person may help a person receive the emotional nurturance that he or she craves. In addition, the basic awareness that an unconscious defense mechanism is enacted during times of stress may help a person become increasingly self-aware. Bringing unconscious material to conscious awareness may provide a person with relief and an opportunity to have empathy for himself or herself. Knowing oneself and understanding the reasons behind certain drives and compulsions may allow a person to gain self-empathy.

For example, say Lisa is angry at herself for allowing her colleague’s taunting to get the best of her. Shocked and upset at his unfair attack, she froze during a meeting. Unable to defend herself, she allowed him to undermine her credibility and take over a project. She folded.

Yet, after some self-reflection, she realized this was often how her father interacted with her when she was young. At the dinner table, he would often unfairly attack and humiliate her. After realizing the present circumstance was a repetition of painful childhood experiences, she understood why the situation was so difficult. The insight allowed her to have empathy for herself. At the next meeting, Lisa was prepared for an altercation and planned to react calmly and intelligently. She reclaimed her project and felt liberated from an unconscious dynamic that previously imprisoned her.

If an empathic loved one is unavailable and a person is struggling to have empathy for himself or herself, a good idea may be to get outside. Being in nature is grounding, centering, and soothing. Endorphins are released and stress is naturally reduced when a person spends time in nature.

Laughter is also a useful way to help a person find empathy for himself or herself. Watching a funny video, TV show, or movie helps a person laugh and smile, which decreases stress levels and elevates endorphins.

Dogs may also be a fantastic source of empathy. Emotionally attuned dogs often like to snuggle and cuddle to help their owner feel better.

Taking the edge off of negative feelings before they compel a person to do something unhealthy is important. Talking about difficulties and accessing empathy can be incredibly soothing. Reflecting and discovering a way to have empathy for oneself is also imperative. Being in nature, laughter therapy, and pet therapy are also useful tools.