The use of food to cope with emotions is all too common. Unfortunately, it's pretty ineffective. Sure, it might distract you from the emotion for a short period of time, but it doesn't really do anything to resolve or improve the situation.
Let's break down 2 emotions as examples: anger and anxiety.
1) Anger is a useful emotion. It happens when our boundaries have been violated. Thus, it prompts us to reset the boundary or remove ourselves from the situation. That's anger at it's best. Sometimes, however, anger is like a rollercoaster that you can't get off. It keeps getting triggered over and over again as you think about what made you mad.
Research on anger shows that venting (just talking about what made you angry) actually fans the fire and fuels the rage. The more we think about what has angered us, the angrier we get. A more effective response is to cool down by waiting out the adrenal surge and physiological arousal that accompanies anger.
Some ways of cooling down are more effective than others. Food doesn't work because it's too easy to remain focused on what made you angry while you're eating. If my coworker makes me mad, eating a cookie isn't going to make me feel better if I continue ruminating on how mad I am at her while I'm eating it.
2) Anxiety too can be a useful emotion. There are times when anxiety prompts us to come up with a solution. For example, if I'm anxious about giving a presentation the anxiety prompts me to prepare well in advance and to rehearse ahead of time.
According to Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence, "The difficulty is with chronic, repetitive worries, the kind that recycle on and on and never get nearer a positive solution…the worries seem to come from nowhere, are uncontrollable, generate a steady hum of anxiety, are impervious to reason, and lock the worrier into a single, inflexible view of the worrisome topic."
Many people turn to food to soothe their anxiety. And it works, for a moment, as the serotonin levels in the brain increase, bathing the amygdala and calming the mind. But it's short-lived and the anxiety comes back again. If food is your only go-to, you're going to be stuck in a cycle of eating to soothe yourself whether hungry or not. This can lead to overeating. Ironically, many of the clients I work with use food to numb the anxiety that they have about food or their body image, which obviously backfires.
What to do instead
Rather than using food to cope with your emotions, try the following:
- Deal directly with the feeling – talk about it, journal, sit with it, challenge/reframe the thoughts
- Distractions – go somewhere else, socialize, listen to music, play an instrument, hobbies, read a book, play with a pet
- Support – text a friend, talk to a family member, tell your therapist
- Self–Care – take a nap, "me" time, do something fun, set boundaries, get a massage
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