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You Eat When You Don’t Want To Feel

Emotional eating is one of the biggest reasons why people with this tool fail to lose or maintain their weight loss. One significant reason many people emotionally eat is from a lack of awareness of how they are feeling in the moment. They don’t put much thought or understanding into why they are eating yet are surprised when they look down to a half eaten bag of cookies or chips. It’s this lack of awareness that makes any other strategy around emotional eating difficult or impossible to practice.  

This limited awareness of emotions is actually fairly significant with a recent study finding that “morbidly obese females who apply for bariatric surgery reported higher scores on difficulty identifying feelings and suppression of emotions than the general population or control group. This study correlated these results with more emotional eating among morbidly obese women.” [1

So how does this jeopardize your attempts to control emotional eating?

When you don’t have a good connection to your bodily feelings (known as interoceptive awareness) and the emotions in your head, you can’t short circuit the patterns around food and emotions. Another way to put it is that when you understand, for example, that when your stomach feels twisted up and your shoulder muscles are tense your body is reacting to a stressful situation. It’s this awareness, in the moment, that you are experiencing stress (or any big emotion) you can then start to take non-eating strategies around reducing that stress. It’s when you don’t recognize these emotions in the moment that you will reflexively and mindlessly reach for cookies, chips or ice cream to help soothe these emotions. 

Where does this come from? 

Most people that have a lack of interoceptive awareness are people that have dealt with stressful and fearful situations over the course of time. And this constant stress does one of two things to the Stress Response System (SRS). It either makes the system become hyper sensitive to future stress so that the person overreacts to situations, with possible inaccurate interpretations of the facts. Or the SRS becomes less sensitive where the person has very little response to stressful situations and starts to disassociate from their body. It’s this second reaction that can get people to have a difficult time attaching body feelings and emotions. It’s not that you are not experiencing emotions, you are, it’s just that you are not aware of it. And it’s this lack of awareness that will unconsciously have you eating to help avoid both the emotions and the bodily feelings.

If you are connecting with this and thinking you may need to work on your body awareness in terms of emotions there is a practice called somatic therapy. This is sometimes known as body psychotherapy and is a therapeutic approach that places importance on what we experience in the mind and the body as well as the connection between the two. There are many different forms of somatic therapy to choose from, so it may take some effort to find one that works for you. But once you start to connect with your emotions you can start to use the other strategies, like urge surfing, to help you avoid eating your feelings.