When you’re happy you celebrate with something delicious to eat. When you’re sad, you stuff your feelings down with a bowl of ice cream. When you’re bored you head to the kitchen to see what’s in the refrigerator. Does this sound like you? If it does, you might be an emotional eater. To stop feeding your feelings with food, try these tips:
Identify ‘Hidden Hungers’
I have no willpower. Such distorted thinking perpetuates emotional eating, says psychologist Melissa McCreery, Ph.D. “It has nothing to do with self-control-it’s a response to a ‘hidden hunger.’” To identify yours, ask yourself what you’re feeling. “Just saying, I’m stressed right now, helps you realize you may be craving something else, like a conversation with a good friend. This shift toward awareness lets you begin to take the power back from urges.”
Go Past ‘Nonsenseville’
Would you hop on a train to New York if you were headed to Chicago? Of course not. The same logic applies to how we think about food, says therapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed.
“There’s no reason to get on board with thoughts leading somewhere we don’t want to go, namely toward guilt.” When her clients replay scripts like, I ate this so I’m bad, she urges them to envision a train bound for “Nonsenseville” and let it speed past. Picturing negative thoughts zoom by helps hardwire a healthier outlook.
Savor Every Bite
Mindful eating decreases our urge to binge. The hitch? “So many of us resist it because it sounds intimidating,” reveals McCreery. That’s why she suggests starting with just one meal and paying attention to what you learn. You may realize that you’re eating because you feel lonely, leading you to start cultivating more connections. “When we fight mindful eating, it’s because we don’t know how to show ourselves compassion – being gentle with yourself reverses this tendency.”
Baby Your Senses
“At the start and end of each day, do a brief check-in with yourself, asking, How can I feed my spirit? ” suggests McCreery.
It could be anything from journaling to taking a walk.
Still not sure how to soothe yourself? “One reason food is so comforting is that it’s such a sensory experience-that’s why it’s helpful to find ways to feed your other senses, from putting on a scented lotion to listening to music.” These small sensory swaps restore us so we’re less likely to overeat.
Keep Looking Ahead
Progress isn’t a straight line–it’s full of setbacks as well as triumphs. The key is not letting the former get you down. “If you had a hard week of emotional eating, get curious about it,” urges McCreery. You may discover that 3 pm is a rough time for cravings because that’s when your energy dips–can you take a break at 1 pm to change this pattern? Looking ahead like this boosts resilience.
Be patient with yourself, encourages therapist Julie Simon, MFT. To foster a soothing inner nurturer, she suggests externalizing it by picturing someone loving from your past, like your grandmother, sharing uplifting words such as, I’m here with you. “Practicing this will eventually help you internalize that voice,” she says. “For example, years ago when I was up late eating, suddenly, I heard, I care about you; we need to stop for tonight. Once you develop this compassionate voice, it’s there for life and will take care of you for life.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.