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8 Ways to Manage Negative Emotions to Stop Binge Eating

Using food to handle or control negative emotions doesn’t work.

Key points

  • Problems handling negative emotions can contribute to the onset and maintenance of binge eating disorder, the most prevalent eating disorder.
  • Food can become a primary coping mechanism to block, numb or control intense negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, loneliness or anxiety.
  • Some ways to manage painful feelings without binge eating include labeling emotions, challenging irrational thoughts and spending time in nature.
Khosrork/istockphoto
Source: Khosrork/istockphoto

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

Why do we binge eat? While we are still learning about disordered eating and eating disorders, we do know that negative emotions—such as sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, loneliness, stress, and anxiety—play a central role in triggering binge eating and maintaining it.

Essentially, emotional eating can contribute to binge eating disorder, especially for those who are genetically vulnerable. In other words, food can be used as a primary coping mechanism—to block, numb, escape, or control intense negative emotions.

If you are in a miserable cycle of binge eating it may be because:

  • you have difficulty handling emotions
  • you don’t understand the purpose of negative emotions
  • you don’t know how to stop impulsive behavior
  • you want to avoid creating problems
  • you have trouble meeting our own high standards

Fortunately, these behaviors are not inevitable. If you have been feeling out-of-control with food, improving your emotional coping can make a positive difference. Emotion regulation skills can help you to stop binge eating, mindless eating, emotional eating, and obsessing about food.

Build Healthy Emotional Habits

All emotions are an essential, inescapable part of us. They tell us about ourselves, and help us navigate our relationships and the world around us. You may worry that it is a sign of weakness to acknowledge painful feelings or to ask for support, but the truth is that facing emotions directly leads to resilience. Pushing your emotions away can inadvertently maintain a negative emotional cycle, such as the binge eating cycle.

“The bottom line is that if you are in hell, the only way out is to go through a period of sustained misery. Misery is, of course, much better than hell, but it is painful nonetheless. By refusing to accept the misery that it takes to climb out of hell, you end up falling back into hell repeatedly, only to have to start over and over again.” ―Marsha M. Linehan, Ph.D.

Since getting rid of emotions is impossible, live with them. Each of your emotions is telling you something different, and each is temporary. With practice, you can learn how to identify and manage painful feelings without binge eating. Here’s how:

  1. Name it to tame it. Are you angry or frustrated? Sad or lonely? Bored or anxious? Determine the specific emotion you’re experiencing, at the moment you are feeling it, and name it. Merely labeling your emotions can de-intensify them. It also gives you a starting point, since you can deal with a feeling once you’ve identified it.
  2. Check your thoughts. Thoughts impact emotions. If you tend to view life circumstances in all-or-nothing terms or to personalize difficulties, you may benefit from checking your thoughts. Are they based in facts or fears? Challenge and change the anxiety-driven or irrational thoughts that are not based in facts to keep them from leading to unnecessary negative emotions.
  3. Move your body. Moving your body can tone down the intensity of your emotions. Try walking, stretching, jumping rope, gardening, cleaning, swimming, dancing, or whatever you enjoy. Check in with yourself afterward to notice how much your negative emotion has downshifted.
  4. Spend time outside. There’s been a lot of research into the mental health benefits of spending time in nature. One 2019 meta-analysis showed that just 10 minutes of natural environment exposure a day can have a positive effect on your mental health and well-being.
  5. Try mindfulness meditation. Various studies suggest that a regular mindfulness meditation practice can help us to effectively manage emotion, reduce stress on the body, and decrease out-of-control eating. Mindfulness meditation entails intentionally focusing on your feelings, sensations, thoughts, or surroundings. Whenever you feel the urge to binge eat, pause and try focusing on your breath—breathe in calm and breathe out stress—for just five minutes.
  6. Track what you eat. For two weeks, write down what, when, and how much you eat. Make note of specific emotions and your levels of hunger and fullness before and after eating. On days 7 and 14, review your food log to gain insight into environmental, relationship, or emotional triggers. Then, experiment with more effective ways to cope.
  7. Ride it out. Having an awareness of the presence of your emotions is never a mistake. However, taking actions, such as binge eating, when emotions are strong may get you into trouble. Instead, notice how the intensity of an emotion will rise and fall. Observe that they will come and go, like waves in the ocean. In the moment, it may seem scary, but when you allow even intense emotions some freedom to run their course without taking actions, you will begin to notice that they are temporary and to develop confidence that you can tolerate them.
  8. Turn to people. Think of the people in your life who can distract or comfort you when you are suffering emotionally. Identify those who you can trust to accept difficult emotions and listen supportively. Not only will this strategy keep you from turning to food to cope, it strengthens your relationships.

"For me, I guess what I needed was to talk to somebody. For me, what I needed was to know that I wasn’t alone. " —Kevin Love, NBA All Star

At Peace with Food

Let food nourish you. In the future, if you are feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, name it, then ask yourself what you can do to take care of yourself in that exact moment. Facing emotions and building up skills to cope with them is empowering. When you are willing to face your emotions, you will have the emotional tools to be at peace with food too.

References

APA. (2021). Stress in America™ January 2021 Stress Snapshot. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/stress-snapshot-jan… and https://www.apa.org/images/sia-january-emotions-infographic_tcm7-283972…

Dingemans, A., Danner, U., & Parks, M. (2017). Emotion Regulation in Binge Eating Disorder: A Review. Nutrients 9 (11), 1274. doi: 10.3390/nu9111274. PMID: 29165348; PMCID: PMC5707746.

Keenan-Miller, D. & Marson, G. (2016). Binge eating: Bridging science and practice. The California Psychologist, 30(3), 14–15.

https://drgiamarson.com/the-top-5-benefits-of-meditation/

Marson, G. & Keenan-Miller, D. 2020. The Binge Eating Prevention Workbook: An eight-week individualized plan to overcome compulsive eating and make peace with food. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, California.

NCCIH. (2021). 8 Things to Know About Meditation for Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-meditation-f…

Siegel, D. Brainstorm: The Teenage Brain from the Inside Out.

https://drgiamarson.com/spending-time-in-nature-can-be-good-for-your-me…

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