Using Mindfulness to Challenge Emotional Eating Habits

By Kristen Quinones, LMSW

Most of us have been there. You're sitting on the couch after a long stressful day— maybe you were assigned a difficult project at work, had an argument with a family member, had a recent breakup with a partner, or were just plain old disappointed by the nonsense you endured on your commute home. Your mind goes to, “What do I have in the fridge that I can eat right now?” In these stressful moments emotional eaters don't usually start chopping up some celery. Pizza delivery, a massive bowl of mac and cheese, or ice cream tend to happen. It’s called comfort food for a reason. In the moment when you make the decision to eat your favorite food (and probably a large portion of it) you begin to feel some emotional relief and happiness.

However, for many of us, by the time you finish eating, the guilt sinks in. You suddenly remember your goals to eat healthy choices and save money by cooking at home. Somehow all of the stress from your difficult day returns but now with a cherry on top — guilt and shame. Emotional eating is common because in the short term it serves as a self-soothing mechanism. Sometimes when we struggle to effectively cope with stress or relationship conflicts, we turn to food. The concept is not outlandish. People turn to substances all the time to take a break from their feelings. However, these choices have consequences and often come with feeling worse after.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be included into almost any part of your daily life. It means staying present in the moment, focusing on your experience, paying attention to your five senses, and reflecting as you make choices. Mindfulness can be used to challenge emotional eating habits by inserting this one basic question into your day “Am I hungry?” Think about it — Am I hungry? Is my stomach growling? Does my body need nourishment? When did I last eat? If your answer is "yes, I am hungry," then ask yourself this: What can I choose to eat that will sustain me, energize me, make me feel good physically and emotionally, and make me feel good about my decision?  That should guide your choice as you then select an appropriate portion of your meal. You can practice mindfulness in your eating experience. Smell the food. Slowly enjoy each bite. Chew your food thoroughly. Think about the taste and texture of the food. This makes eating a positive experience and helps distract you from letting the thoughts of your stressful day ruminate and take over your mood. Instead call a friend to vent and utilize social support.

Now if the answer to the question “Am I hungry?” is no, ask yourself: Am I bored? Am I stressed? Am I upset? If the answer is yes, then find an activity to keep yourself busy, active, or mentally engaged. This is when hobbies are very helpful. It is also important at this time to again utilize social support to talk about your stressful day. By utilizing these effective coping strategies you will be able to handle stress in a healthy way by also maintaining your physical health.

Kristen Quinones is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy.  If you would like support with emotional eating and using effective coping strategies, visit www.cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more how therapy can help.