Home Mental Health How to Stop Using Food as a Coping Mechanism

How to Stop Using Food as a Coping Mechanism

How to Stop Using Food as a Coping Mechanism

Food is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, loneliness, boredom and other difficult emotions. While eating can temporarily make us feel better, using food this way can lead to overeating, weight gain and unhealthy relationships with food.

If you regularly turn to food when you feel sad, anxious or bored, you may have developed an emotional eating pattern. The good news is that with the right strategies, you can break this habit and find healthier ways to cope.

In this complete guide, I’ll explain why we emotionally eat, the downsides to using food as a coping mechanism, and most importantly, provide science-based techniques to stop this cycle. You’ll also find a helpful FAQ at the end.

Why Do We Use Food For Emotional Coping?

There are several psychological and biological reasons why we reach for food during times of stress:

1. Food stimulates dopamine

Dopamine is a brain chemical that regulates mood and also signals rewards to make us feel good. Consuming unhealthy comfort foods like ice cream, cookies and chips triggers a flood of feel-good dopamine.

Over time we learn to associate these foods with pleasure and relief from distress, reinforcing the pattern of emotional eating.

2. Eating distracts from negative feelings

Biting, chewing and tasting take focus away from unpleasant emotions. We think less about what’s really bothering us when we’re focused on eating. This provides some temporary relief but doesn’t address the root cause.

3. Stress increases cortisol which may drive overeating

When we’re stressed, our bodies release higher levels of cortisol and other hormones that promote fat storage and appetite cues for calorie-dense foods. The biological drive to eat plus food’s ability to soothe emotions is a bad combination.

While using food to cope might seem harmless on the surface, it can significantly impact your health and self-image when done long-term.

The Downsides of Emotional Eating

Turning to food when you’re upset may momentarily improve your mood. But over time it can lead to several problems including:

Weight gain & obesity: Emotional eating often involves reaching for high-calorie comfort foods in large portions, especially late at night. The excess calories can easily pile on pounds over time.

Feeling out of control around food: Having an emotional relationship with food means your eating is governed by feelings more so than hunger cues. This loss of control can be distressing.

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Low self-esteem: Emotional eating can trigger guilt after you’ve finished the food. Feeling like you have no discipline with food choices may negatively impact self-image.

No development of healthy coping skills: If food is your go-to stress reliever, you’ll fail to learn constructive ways to calm yourself down when life gets tough. This can impact resilience.

Emotional eating disorder risk: While not an official eating disorder diagnosis, emotional eating disorder shares some traits with disorders like stress eating or binge eating disorder. This makes it a risk factor for developing a full-blown disorder.

Now that you know why we emotionally eat and why it’s detrimental, let’s focus the rest of this guide on techniques and strategies to overcome this habit.

Steps to Stop Using Food For Emotional Coping

Breaking emotional eating patterns begins with self-awareness. Once you understand your personal triggers and warning signs, you can replace food with healthier coping strategies that target the underlying cause.

Here is a step-by-step process:

Step 1: Identify Your Triggers

We all have unique reasons why we reach for food when emotions run high. Do you overeat when you:

  • Feel stressed?
  • Are bored or lonely?
  • Need to reward yourself?
  • Are procrastinating or avoiding something unpleasant?
  • Are tired, angry or sad?

Keep an eating journal to uncover connections between your mood and food choices. Note what you ate, how much, when and what emotions preceded the eating episode.

As patterns surface, highlight your biggest triggers so you know what situations require alternatives to reduce emotional eating.

Step 2: Learn Healthier Ways to Cope With Triggers

Now that you know when you emotionally eat, you need to replace food with techniques that address the underlying cause in a constructive manner.

Here are healthier ways to cope with common emotional eating triggers:

If you overeat because you’re stressed, try:

  • Yoga – Reduces the stress hormone cortisol
  • Meditation – Lowers blood pressure and anxiety
  • Going for a walk – Gets you moving to relieve tension
  • Calling a friend
  • Practicing gratitude

If boredom and loneliness trigger overeating, try:

  • Signing up for an exciting class
  • Scheduling video chats with friends
  • Discovering new hobbies that energize you
  • Volunteering to help others

If you emotionally eat as a reward or to procrastinate, try:

  • Scheduling enjoyable non-food rewards for accomplishments
  • Checking items off your to-do list
  • Saying “no” to additional tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed

The key is tailoring solutions to the emotions behind your eating urges. Refer to your trigger list and experiment with alternatives until you find reliable options.

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Step 3: Make Unhealthy Foods Less Convenient

Even if your kitchen is stocked with fruits, veggies and healthy meal options, all it takes is opening the freezer door for your willpower to melt. Digging into that pint of ice cream is just easier in the moment.

To stick to nutritious choices despite emotional pull towards junk food or sweets, make unhealthy options inconvenient:

  • Don’t grocery shop while hungry
  • Avoid keeping trigger foods at home regularly
  • Store indulgent items out of immediate eyesight
  • Portion treats into single servings to curb mindless overeating

Out of sight, out of mouth!

Step 4: Practice Mindfulness and Check In With Your Body

Emotional hunger differs from physical hunger. But in the moment, it can be challenging to tell them apart.

Physical hunger builds gradually and your body gives clues – small stomach rumbles, low energy, trouble concentrating, impatience.

Emotional hunger is urgent and intense right away. The urge feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly to feel better.

Practicing mindfulness can help decipher between these cues. Check in with your body before emotionally eating. Are you interpreting an unpleasant mood as needing food right now?

Rate your physical hunger on a 1-10 scale. If it’s under a 4 but you have a sudden craving, this points to emotional hunger. Pause and reassess what you truly need in that moment.

Step 5: Get Support From a Professional (If Needed)

Despite your best efforts, breaking emotional eating patterns can still prove extremely challenging. The habit may be too engrained after years of using food as your go-to coping mechanism.

Seeking guidance from a psychologist that specializes in overeating, binge eating and emotional eating disorders may help. Through counseling, they can equip you with skills to navigate stressors, process emotions and disrupt the habit loop once and for all.

If your overeating is severe and accompanied by signs of binge eating disorder or bulimia, seeking treatment is crucial for your physical and mental health. Don’t hesitate to get professional support.

With consistent practice replacing food with healthier alternatives and a watchful eye on eating triggers and hunger cues, you can break emotional eating for good! It may seem daunting now but the effort is well worth regaining balance with food and self-confidence.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it so hard to stop emotional eating?

Using food to numb and soothe challenging emotions can be extremely habit forming because it works…temporarily. The instant gratification makes it harder to tolerate general life stresses. Overtime your threshold for unpleasant feelings becomes very low, making your want to eat at the slightest discomfort.

Rebounding after a setback feels frustratingly hard because new coping tactics rarely provide quick relief like emotional eating does. But with time, as you build skills to calm yourself in healthy ways, food loses its power and appeal.

Are comfort foods addictive?

The combination of fat, sugar and salt in popular comfort foods like cookies, chips and ice cream lights up reward circuits in the brain similar to drugs. This reinforces cravings for these foods when emotional. The more you rely on them to relieve stress and other negative feelings, the more addicting they become.

This is why replacing emotional eating of junk foods with whole, minimally processed foods that nourish your body is so important. They help recalibrate taste preference to support health rather than hinder it.

How long does it take to overcome emotional eating?

There’s no set timeline as it depends on the individual and severity of the habit. Consistently using alternatives like journaling, exercising or calling a friend instead of food every time you feel upset trains your brain over time to no longer consider eating a go-to coping mechanism.

With vigilant awareness of your triggers, mindfulness habit and social support, most people overcome mild to moderate emotional eating within 6 months to a year. But lifelong maintenance is required to prevent falling back into the habit.

What causes stress eating and how can I manage it?

When we’re under pressure, the stress hormone cortisol communicates with the hunger-regulating hormone leptin to spur cravings for indulgent comfort foods. Stress also impairs our ability to make logical food decisions which can lead to overeating.

To curb stress eating, use healthy meal planning and portioning hacks so the aftermath isn’t overwhelming. Practice tactical stress management like deep breathing, taking a walk outdoors or yoga when you feel anxious. Maintaining consistent self-care routines also keeps stress more manageable overall.

Prioritizing rest,relationships and hobbies you enjoy forms a buffer so day-to-day stressors and responsibilities don’t continually drive you towards food.

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