You’ve surely seen this scene in the movies: the main character goes through a break-up or loses their job. After that, they spend several days on the couch, stuffing themselves with ice cream. Sadly, for many people, this isn’t just a movie trope — it’s a genuine coping mechanism. Once food is tied directly into the body’s reward/comfort loop during a stressful time, emotional eating often becomes a habit for life.
Emotional eaters use food to make themselves feel better or reward themselves for a job well done. And although food offers comfort for a little while, ultimately it isn’t the right solution.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
As an emotional eater, you might struggle to figure out what kind of hunger you’re feeling — emotional or physical. In fact, to you, every sensation of hunger might seem physical, because it’s so powerful and compelling. But though it’s tricky, it is possible to tell the two apart. Here are some of the telltale signs:
- Emotional hunger is sudden and urgent — you feel like you need to satisfy it right Physical hunger can be urgent too if you haven’t eaten in a while, but it never comes on so suddenly.
- When you’re emotionally hungry, nothing sounds better than your favorite guilty pleasure…chocolate, pizza, chips, or sweets. This junk food is comforting because it gives you an instant rush. On the other hand, physical hunger doesn’t necessarily crave any specific foods — anything, including vegetables, sounds good when you’re famished.
- You overeat when you’re emotionally hungry because food isn’t what you need. Satisfying hunger isn’t the end goal; it’s making yourself feel better. On the other hand, physical hunger subsides once you’ve filled your stomach.
- Emotional hunger leads to feelings of weakness and guilt. You feel like you lack willpower and can’t trust yourself around food. But when you’re simply satisfying physical hunger, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Reasons for Emotional Overeating
Typically, emotional eating occurs when you’re dealing with unpleasant feelings that you don’t know how to cope with. Common triggers are anxiety, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, and above all else — stress. By stuffing yourself with food, you’re trying to numb these emotions rather than fully let yourself feel them.
Sometimes, though, overeating can be caused by feelings of boredom or lack of purpose. If you’re not happy with where you are in life, food could provide you the much-needed distraction and satisfaction.
It’s hard to break the habit of emotional overeating if that’s been your go-to coping mechanism for years. Luckily though, with some mindfulness and practice, it’s not impossible. The first step is learning about the causes and symptoms of emotional overeating and noticing them in yourself. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll be on the path of recovery.
If you would like professional, medical guidance for your emotional eating tendencies, please schedule a free appointment with Dr. Blissenbach here.