Laurel Mellin Ph.D.


Emotional Eating: The Joy of Rewiring It!

Why diet when you can go to the root cause and gain freedom?

Posted Feb 19, 2016

For three decades, I tried to figure "why" I overate. Perhaps it was a childhood wound. Maybe I was far too self-indulgent. It could be that I was one of those people who really "liked" food, so why not do what I liked to do?

First I became a nutritionist. That helped somewhat because the foods that I craved made me hungrier, so I could "white knuckle" it and "be good" and eat right and that curbed the drive to overeat, except when stress hit.

Fast forward 30 years, and following my dream come true which was getting to the root cause of the drive to overeat -- so the emotional tug of war could end. Along the way I stopped being interested in the drive to overeat. Drives are drives. If it isn't one emotional drive it would be another. Somehow the bigger picture was about emotional connection, something deep inside.

Source: Mellin/

Fortunately, the decade of neuroscience finally led to new insights about what to do about that drive to overeat. In the meanwhile, I got a doctorate in health psychology, wrote books and solved my own emotional overeating issue.

What surprised me the most was that there was nothing bad going on in me that made me alternately obsess about food then "flick it in" and eat whatever I wanted to eat. It was a few emotional wires that were driving both extremes. These old memories that keep replaying themselves cause the emotional brain to get stuck in stress. In that stress, all the chemical changes occur which promote weight gain, whether it's insulin resistance or leptin resistance . . . the are all fueled to a great extent by the wiring of the emotional brain.  

What I ended up creating is emotional brain training (EBT), a method that takes work. You have to learn how to identify a wire that you don't like, such as the wire that tells you that you get your love from food or that going numb makes you safe . . . and such. And how to use some emotional techniques to keep that wire from bothering you so much.

However, there is a huge joy in it because we do not do it alone! We do it in a telegroup so nobody sees us, but we have a small tribe of people who are meeting for an hour a week with a coach, then use the tools to release stress, feel joy and rewire the drive to overeat until we make peace with ourselves and the food.

Yesterday I coached a physician who is one of the kindest people I know. Her patients love her; she has 3 children who love her, and she has about 30 pounds of extra weight that simply will not come off.

The technique we use in EBT is the cycle tool, and it takes a few minutes to weaken a wire, and we do this over time until the brain gives us chemical surges that feel good, that make us laugh, love, feel secure, even more secure that we felt when the drive to overeat was snatching away our freedom.

So here is what happened . . . (Note, I'm changing the specifics to protect privacy, but the essence of this remains true to what happened.)

Kate said, "The situation is that I keep turning to food for comfort. What I'm most stressed about is that I sabotage myself. I tell myself I won't do it, but when I get stressed, there I am again, foraging around the kitchen for something good to eat.

Then she continued her EBT cycle tool, and did the most important thing. She expressed her anger.  Kate did it in a way that turned her anger into joy - and changed her wiring to decrease her cravings . . . 

She said, "I feel angry that I have no self-esteem. I hate it that I keep overeating. I am so ANGRY that no matter how hard I try, I keep eating!!!!

Then she paused. I knew that was a great sign because it means whatever emotional drives were activating her overeating had started to change. The memory or wire that was telling her to overeat was "unlocked" and open to changing - also called "frying."

Kate easily felt her feelings, first tender sadness, then a bit of fear then guilt, which is not what she did wrong, but a way to figure out where her power is.

She said, "I feel sad that I don't think better of myself. I feel afraid that I will never stop overeating. I feel guilty that I have gained 30 pounds and no matter what I do, I can't lose it!

Her face broke into a smile, because after letting the negative emotions flow, the positive ones rise up!  She said, "Of course I can't lose the weight, because I get my safety from  . . .

Kate waited for some words to bubble up from her body. This is the amazing moment when the unconscious expectation that is fueling the overeating arrives in her conscious mind.

She said, " . . . because I get my safety from being miserable!" With that she started laughing, and said, "That's SO true. That drive to be miserable was encoded in my brain when I was about 8 years old. That's the only way I could get attention!"

I said, "Do you want to sit with your feelings and honor that circuit or do you want to rewire it?"​

Laurel Mellin/EBT
Source: Laurel Mellin/EBT

She paused, knowing that sometimes it's most effective to just feel the feelings. Then her face brightened, and she said, "I want to fry that wire!"

Based on Hebb's Law, rewiring a circuit takes confronting it with the opposite expectation, so she,"I cannot get the safety I really need from being miserable . . . no, I can't . . I cannot get the safety I really need from being miserable. No ,I can't . . . " and before long she was in total JOY.

As you read this, you might wonder why using this tool could lead to joy and even, laughter!  Our evolutionary biology rewards us with dopamine spurts when we learn, change and grow. Survival of the species is based on growth, so even though nothing seemed to have changed, already she was in rapture.

Yet the most important part was that Kate was on her way to creating a true solution. There are probably several wires that are fueling her overeating, but if one of them was a circuit that was stored in her brain that told her to be miserable, even if she did lose weight, stop overeating and find the love of her life, sooner or later, she'd find another way to be miserable. These wires rule our lives until we . . . rewire them!

Kate left the session and was going to make a connection with someone in her telegroup so she could repeat that expectation another 20 times, in the loving presence of another, and further fry that wire. Sure it takes lots of uses of the cycle tool to get freedom from the drive to overeat, but she spiraled up from feeling stressed and miserable to joy.

The neuroscience of obesity is really important, because most of us are blaming ourselves for our overeating, and think of it as a weight problem. The drive to overeat is a strong emotional drive often encoded early in life.​

Instead of dieting, we can have fun with it. it's just a wire, let's rewire it and make weight loss easier and more lasting! Learn more about EBT and start creating joy in your life rather than blaming yourself for overeating. Neuroscience is guiding our way!​