Five Surprising Points About the Psychology of Emotional Eating

Unwanted behaviors involving food are very common. Many people feel alone in their struggles with their relationships with food. However, according to the American Psychological Association, 38% of adults admit to overeating in the past month due to stress. And half of that group reports stress-eating at least once a week.

Not sure if you’re an emotional eater? You may struggle with emotional eating if…

  • You experience regular episodes of unwanted eating
  • You feel compelled to eat even when you don’t want or need to – even if you know you’ll regret it
  • You have internal struggles revolving around thoughts of eating and fighting against it
  • You feel like the only way to stop the noise in your head and quell the thoughts of eating is by acting on it
  • You resolve to get right back to your diet and exercise routine after experiencing unwanted eating, but that only puts you back in a restrictive mindset and restarts the diet-binge cycle

Stress-eating or emotional eating often carries feelings of guilt and shame for people who participate in those behaviors.

Here are five surprising things regarding emotional eating:

  1. It often doesn’t feel pleasurable at all. Emotional eating is not about passively giving in to the temptation of delicious food. Is the food people binge on often delicious? Yes! Do they feel a strong temptation to eat it? Of course! It’s also true, however, that most emotional eaters eat more than they want. They’re not motivated by hunger, they don’t feel pleasure or enjoyment about the binge episode, and they know they’re going to feel badly about it later. 
  2. Emotional eating usually involves some form of restriction. If you ever think, feel, or say “I can’t have that” regarding any food that you’re not allergic to, you’re restricting and controlling what you may or may not eat. It may be your own choice to eat that way, but it’s typically driven by the overwhelming pressure from the diet culture. Any approach to eating in which certain foods are “never, ever” foods, can be experienced as restrictive, even if you’re not “on a diet.”
  3. People try to control their negative feelings that result from emotional eating. Eventually, that feeling of being restricted (even by a part of yourself) can cause you to feel controlled. A normal response to this feeling is for another part of yourself to react in precisely the opposite way. In the case of dieting, which can feel controlling, the reaction is to eat without control. 
  4. The urge to eat emotionally can often come from a factor that doesn’t involve food at all. Although for emotional eaters, diet control is the most common source of that feeling, it could come from any ongoing experience of being controlled: feeling stuck in an unhappy relationship or dead-end job are common examples. 
  5. It’s possible to overcome emotional eating. This previous point is key to overcoming emotional eating. Since the reaction to feeling controlled is based on how you interpret an experience, Then it’s possible to interpret the experience differently. To do that, the first step would be to identify what experiences are causing you to feel controlled, and how they may be reframed.

We at Equipoise view the key emotion in emotional eating or binge eating to be anger: “aw, screw it” or “the hell with it!” That’s the emotional reaction that comes with acting rebelliously or in desperation.

Feeling controlled or restricted can make emotional eating more an act of defiance than desire, yet the urge to act on it can feel much stronger than the desire for something delicious. 

Emotional eating is motivated by a need to establish a feeling of personal control over your life, which at that moment can feel irresistible. The emotional aftermath, however, is anything but pleasurable.If you struggle with emotional eating or other unwanted behaviors, the therapists at Equipoise are ready to help with our teletherapy services. Click here to book a virtual therapy appointment.

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