You eat your feelings.
But take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one.
The longer the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on and as we enter the holiday season, we get ever closer to entering a perfect storm of emotionally driven binge eating and mindless numbing.
Who doesn’t want another piece (or maybe the entire half) of leftover pecan pie after you’ve spent your day jumping between your kids online schooling and your busy Zoom meeting schedule, and you’re mentally exhausted?
Or you want to soothe away the anxiety of impending deadlines for big projects that you’re having a lot of difficulty focusing on with an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
I could go on with countless examples of how we all go about using food to fill a void, to entertain us, or to simply escape from our current reality.
And while this may feel somewhat tongue in cheek (food pun!), the consequences of emotional eating can be far reaching and have serious implications for your mental and physical health.
When we push away our feelings and emotions, and try to avoid or numb them by eating we do a few mean things to our brains and bodies.
Now this isn’t an extensive overview of all the ramifications of emotional eating and why it’s bad.
It’s a gentle wake up call, or reminder, that there’s more on the line than adding inches to your waist and pounds to the scale.
First off our brains start to associate negative emotions, like anger, sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, as something “bad” and requires a stress response. Over time the repeated stress response this triggers creates a neural pathway.
Through this neural pathway, a habit loop is formed. In the case of emotional eating, that habit loop looks like:
1) Experience negative emotion
2) Look for food option to avoid, numb or soothe
3) Enjoy fleeting feeling of pleasure from salt, sugar etc. along with mental reprieve from emotional reaction
4) Repeat when negative emotion reappears
Aside from the habit forming nature of using food to avoid our emotions, we’re instructing our brain both consciously and subconsciously that we can’t handle our feelings and they must be avoided.
We also send strong messages to our bodies when we eat through the natural release of hormones and neurotransmitters that impact blood sugar levels, organ function and thinking processes.
If emotional eating becomes something normal you do everyday, you increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of other chronic health conditions.
But I’m not here to guilt you into changing your lifestyle and habits or scare you from eating a KitKat after your toddler uses finger paint to decorate your walls.
What I’m here to do is share 13 alternatives to using food to avoid, numb or mindlessly distract from whatever it is that you’re feeling.
And these are methods I’ve tried, and want to share with you…
Think of it as a gift from one emotional eater to another.
1) Keep Your Hands Busy
What this looks like for you is going to be location specific — though these days it’s likely you’re at home — but find something that keeps your hands busy.
Think about getting a mindless task like folding laundry out of the way.
Engaging in this type of activity will distract you and give you the space you need to regroup.
2) Pick Up a New Hobby
This suggestion works well and complements the idea of keeping your hands busy.
I’ve used crochet, knitting, and collage and art journaling as creative outlets to both distract myself and process my emotions.
When you feel like eating an entire bag of chips after a long day, turn to an activity that’s fun and easy to pick up on a moment’s notice.
3) Take a Nap
Taking an nap might be easier said than done, but often emotional eating is used to smooth over what are real needs actually are.
A lack of sleep is a well known trigger for overeating, and when combined with hard and heavy emotions, food quickly becomes a welcome friend.
Instead, find a quite space to close your eyes for 20 minutes and see how you feel.
4) Try Deep Breathing
Right now there’s a lot of advice out there that simply says in order to address how you’re feeling, take some deep breaths and everything will be fine. While this is true in theory, you need to actively step back and focus on taking deep, belly filling breaths.
Dr. Andrew Weil teaches the 4–7–8 breathing technique that I have used for years and find very helpful. Inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and then breathe out for 8 counts. Repeat for at least 2 minutes.
5) Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness may be trendy right now but it’s not without good reason. It works.
The concept is that you simply observe, without judgment, what’s going on in the present moment. This can be things both external and internal in your body.
Maybe you notice the beating of your heart, or a bird singing outside. It could also be that you tap into what your body is actually asking for and decide to listen and follow through, instead of grabbing the Doritos.
6) Search giphy.com For Memes
Hunger can masquerade as all kinds of feelings, but often its just a call for a change of state.
Step back from hunger pangs and ask yourself if you’re really just bored and need something to distract you.
In my mind there’s nothing better than spending 15–20 minutes searching giphy.com for fun memes and videos.
Give yourself permission (without guilt) to “waste some time” doing something fun and entertaining.
7) Create a Spotify Playlist
Music can help and heal. It can also boost your mood, inspire your confidence, or make you simply feel like a million bucks.
Start a new playlist filled with your favourite tunes that you turn to when you’re searching for a snack.
Maybe its filled with guilty pleasure songs, or cherished favourites that make you feel like a million bucks. Whatever it is — create it and crank the volume.
8) Dance Like No One’s Watching
If you made that Spotify playlist this suggestion is even easier to put into action — crank it and dance. If you’re at home find a way to move that’s fun and comfortable for you — and don’t hold back either.
Maybe it’s pulling out your dance moves from the 90s (Macarena, anyone?), or just shaking your booty along with the beat.
The most important thing is that you’re moving, which in and of itself has lots of health benefits, but movement also forces your brain to change its state and thought patterns almost instantly. Say goodbye, emotional hunger pangs.
9) Go For a 5 Minute Walk
As with dancing, taking a walk gets you moving and benefits both your body and brain at the same time. The best part is that you don’t have to go outside either.
If you’re limited in terms of where you can and can’t go (say for instance, leave your apartment because of COVID restrictions) start by walking back and forth in your kitchen or den.
If you have a home with more space, try pacing in your kitchen or living room. Try taking advantage of the outdoors (if you can) and walk around the block a few times.
The physical activity boosts your brain function, benefits your body, and can even help you consolidate and process information at a subconscious level.
10) Start An Indoor Garden
Plants not only clean the air and provide a splash of mood boosting color and texture to your environment, but their care makes for a great hobby.
Pick up a few small plants at your local Home Depot or garden centre (depending on where you live and the time of year the selection will vary), and dedicate time to their care.
Easy to care for varieties include snake plants, succulents, Peace Lilies, and pathos.
My collection of plants has quickly grown from a simple Peace Lily bought in the middle of an unseasonably cold spring in 2017, to a sprawling indoor garden that I tend to when I’m negotiating between emotional eating and walking away from the kitchen.
11) Go Through Photos On Your Phone
Though we all spend too much time on our phones already, I like to go through old photos and do a clean up of stuff that’s no longer useful or relevant.
I’ll also spend time organizing my photo albums on my phone, favouriting new snap shots and watching videos from the past.
Organizing your photos can distract you from your emotional eating pangs, and at the same time bring up some great feelings of nostalgia.
12) Sit With Your Feelings
While this suggestion isn’t the most fun, it’s often when we sit with how we’re feeling and identify its root cause that we’re able to heal.
If you want more than a distraction from your desire to eat a package of Oreos, this is the method for you.
Take a deep breath in and out and repeat. Allow whatever it is that you’re feeling to rise to the surface and approach it without judgment.
Picture yourself as an objective observer whose curious and wants to explore where these feelings in more depth.
Maybe its anger over how a meeting with your boss went, or frustration with your kid’s picky eating style.
Acknowledge how you feel, while moving away from the pantry. Remove yourself from your kitchen and find a safe comfortable spot to sit and be with your feelings.
13) Take a Hot Bath or Shower
While you can’t take a hot bath or shower when emotional eating cues hit when you’re in the middle of Walmart and the Twinkies are calling your name, you can still try a modified version of this suggestion.
Head to the closest bathroom and take one minute to wash your hands under warm water.
Pay attention to proper hand washing guidelines and distract yourself with the warmth of the water, the feel and smell of the soap, and ensuring that you clean your nails and finger beds well.
If you find yourself wanting to eat your feelings at the end of the day make note of this and check in with your body and brain.
Are you really hungry, or just exhausted? Do you need to head to bed early instead of numbing out on Netflix?
If you’re hungry by all means eat a small snack that’s preferably of the healthier variety (think toast with peanut butter, or an apple and handful of almonds).
With a little commitment and some creativity you can navigate the world of emotional eating with more confidence. Using any or all of these strategies gives you an opportunity to distract yourself or dive a bit deeper into what’s at the root of your desire to eat.
Whatever you choose remember to practice self-compassion and cut yourself some slack. There’s nothing worse for an emotional eater than getting caught in a shame spiral that you fuel with repeated trips to the kitchen or pantry.
Remember that you do have control and power over the decisions you make about what and when you choose to eat, and these strategies can help you get closer to mastery.