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Understanding Emotional Eating.

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

We all want to be healthy and what we eat is key to that so when eating feels out of our control it can cause us a great deal of distress.

Our emotions have a huge impact on our unconscious behaviour and can undermine our intentions to eat more healthily.

Cognitive neuroscientists believe that 95% of our thoughts, behaviour and feelings are unconscious which means nearly everything we do is on autopilot.

Think about driving your car or bike for a moment, do you pay full attention to how much you need to turn the wheel or handlebars to steer properly or how hard you need to push on the pedals to stop and go?

We drive on autopilot and often can’t remember much about the journey when we arrive at our destination.

If you think about it, this is true of most of the things we do and eating is no different. That’s how we can intend to eat a couple of biscuits and then arrive at the end of the packet without really being aware of eating them all.

So we can have conscious intentions about healthy eating while the much more powerful unconscious part of our mind controls our behaviour.

Our unconscious mind uses negative feedback loops to keep our bodies at homeostasis, so if we get too hot, we’ll sweat and we’re motivated to take some clothes off to cool down and if we get too cold, we’ll get goosebumps and we’re motivated to put more clothes on or turn the heating up to warm ourselves.

The messages and signals are using information from our external environment and internal processes and include learned behaviour from similar experiences in the past to keep us at homeostasis.

If we’re feeling emotional ie tired, bored, sad, lonely, unfulfilled, empty etc these negative feedback loops will send messages around the body and a process is set in motion to bring us back to homeostasis.

Unconsciously, we’re motivated to take action to overcome the negative feelings and bring us back to normal and fast food is a quick and easy solution.

Even if we consciously know that we’re going to feel worse afterwards, the powerful unconscious mind wants a quick, easy solution and if we don’t have an alternative quick, easy option then we’re likely to give in and eat.

If emotional eating is a problem for you, you’ve certainly already tried resisting the urge and told yourself you’re not going to do it and now you know that the unconscious mind is so much more powerful than the conscious mind, you’ll see why this will most likely fail.

In the short term, you could substitute unhealthy snacks with healthier snacks so that you don’t leave “holes” in your behaviour and in the short term your unconscious might feel it’s solved the problem.

In the longer term your unconscious mind wants you to take action to overcome these underlying feelings of tiredness, boredom, loneliness, emptiness, discomfort, unfulfilment etc. and means you need to take action to resolve the underlying emotions.

Have you noticed that when you’re doing something you enjoy, you get a burst of energy and feel a sense of being in flow. But when you’re doing something that feels like a chore (for me that’s ironing) it’s really hard to find any energy or enthusiasm.

To change the cycle of emotional eating you’ll need to change your situation and improve the balance between obligation, leisure and self-care.

These are some of the areas you should check:

Do you meet up regularly with close family and friends or someone who accepts you for who you are?

Is your work stimulating or are you over-worked?

Are you doing things that you enjoy and challenge you and give you a sense of meaning and purpose?

Are your achievements acknowledged?

Do you have interests and hobbies outside of your work?

Do you feel part of a group or community who are working together to achieve/ or learn something new?

Do you feel safe?

Or does you life feel out of control?

Do you tell yourself that you don’t have time to do the things that will change your circumstances and make you feel better?

It can be worth remembering that the people close to you will benefit if you’re taking the time to look after yourself because you’ll be less stressed and means you’ll probably be nicer to be around.

When you’re at your best emotionally you’ll have more clarity, be more efficient and have more energy to get more done.

If you’re stuck in this emotional cycle and would like help to change some things, please feel free to contact me for a free introductory chat to explore what working together might look like.

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