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Why do I keep reaching for Food for Comfort? (Emotional Eating)

Updated: Mar 14

Why do I keep reaching for Food for Comfort?

In this article, I explore why we might turn to food as a coping mechanism to numb our emotions, and how this can lead to a vicious cycle of guilt and shame which in turn prompts further emotional eating if the causes of our emotional distress are not addressed. Emotional eating can lead to weight gain: if you want to lose weight then your emotional eating now feels like self-sabotage. I look at the example of using food to numb the pain of grief and suggest alternative, healthier ways to cope.

(In my previous article I listed ‘unhealthy coping mechanism’ as a pattern of behavior you might identify when writing an Emotional Food Diary.)

Why do we use food to numb our emotions?

People may turn to food for emotional comfort for various reasons:

Temporary Relief: Eating can provide temporary relief from negative emotions such as grief, stress, anxiety, or boredom. Food can stimulate the brain's reward system, giving a brief feeling of pleasure and distraction from emotional pain.

Cultural and Social Norms: In many cultures food is associated with comfort and celebration. Sharing meals with others is a common social activity, and people may use food as a way to connect with others or seek solace during social events.

Learned Behaviour: Individuals might learn this behaviour during childhood. If food was used as a reward or comfort in their upbringing, this pattern may continue into adulthood.

Habitual Behaviour: Emotional eating can become a habit. When faced with emotional distress, the habit of turning to food for comfort becomes ingrained and automatic.

What happens if you don’t address the underlying issue?

If you are using food to numb your emotions and these emotions or needs are not addressed the willpower needed to stop will be depleted over time. Eventually, you will reach out for food as comfort. When needs or emotions are repressed, they are pushed into the subconscious, making individuals unaware of them consciously. However, these suppressed needs often still influence thoughts, behaviours, and emotions in subtle and sometimes harmful ways.

Emotional eating can be seen as a behaviour that undermines one's well-being and goals. For example, if someone is trying to maintain a healthy diet or lose weight, turning to food as a coping mechanism for emotional distress can hinder their progress and self-confidence. It creates a cycle where negative emotions trigger unhealthy eating habits, leading to guilt and further negative emotions, perpetuating the cycle of self-sabotage.

Using comfort eating to suppress grief

Using comfort eating to suppress grief is a common coping mechanism for many individuals.

Grief can be overwhelming and emotionally challenging. There are many reasons why people might want to suppress their grief; not least to dull the excruciating pain they may be in.

Suppressed grief is a common phenomenon where an individual consciously or unconsciously avoids, denies, or minimizes their feelings of grief following a significant loss or trauma. People might suppress their grief for various reasons, such as cultural expectations, societal pressure, fear of vulnerability, or the belief that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness. It may also be that their grief is stigmatized. (Grief associated with certain types of loss, such as suicide, addiction, or other stigmatized circumstances, can be met with judgment or silence. This can lead individuals to suppress their grief, fearing social isolation or criticism.)

Food can provide temporary solace and distraction from the pain; it can be used as a way to numb or cope with difficult emotions. However, while comfort eating may offer temporary relief, it does not address the underlying grief and can lead to additional emotional and physical challenges.

Clients might be in distress because their eating is out of control: this might be years after a significant loss or trauma, and therefore not consciously associated with an event the client feels they have put behind. They may not attribute their weight gain to grief, and it is only when they start to unpack their emotions they realise their grief hasn’t been processed and is driving their behaviour.

Healthier coping strategies to navigate your grief

It is important to find healthier coping mechanisms to navigate the grieving process:

Acknowledge Your Grief: Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience your grief. It's a natural and necessary part of the healing process.

Seek Support: Reach out to friends, family, or support groups. Talking about your feelings with others who understand can provide emotional relief and comfort.

Healthy Coping Strategies: Explore healthier ways to cope with grief, such as journaling, practicing mindfulness or meditation, engaging in physical activity, or pursuing creative outlets such as art or music.

Self-Compassion: Be kind and gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to grieve without judgment. Self-compassion is an essential part of the healing process.

Professional Help: Consider talking to a therapist or counsellor who specializes in grief and loss. They can provide guidance and support tailored to your specific situation.

Remember that grieving is a highly individual process, and there is no right or wrong way to experience it. It's important to find what works best for you and to give yourself the time and space needed to heal. Sometimes this time and space can be found in counselling or therapy.

If you are experiencing the pain of grief and would like to explore how talking with an anonymous, trained, person could help you then please give me a call.

First published in Counseling Directory, 03/11/23

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