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  • Diana Allen, MS, CNS

The #1 Reason for Emotional Eating and How to be NICE to Yourself

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

When we get into the food, what are we trying to get out of?

Binge eating, emotional eating and compulsive overeating inevitably lead to sorrow. So why do we do it?


It’s all about coping. Avoiding physical or emotional discomfort/unease by distracting and numbing the mind by eating food. Often, the discomfort is not experienced consciously. But one thing is for sure:


When we turn to food in the absence of hunger,

it’s a signal that something is going on inside.


Inevitably, this something is a feeling. Whether it's bored, anxious, tired, sad, lonely, angry, frustrated or some other feeling, the feeling always comes first. Even when we aren't aware of it, the feeling is there.


In fact, more often than not, the feeling is experienced unconsciously. In response, the urge to pop a little something in our mouth suddenly shows up in the mind. If we follow the urge and start eating, we may stop after a few bites. Or we may keep going until all the food is gone. We may eat a little (or a lot) too much. We even may go way overboard and succumb to a full-on binge.


Afterward, the food we ate may make us feel just a little stuffed, bloated or desperately, uncomfortably full. Depending on time of day and volume consumed, we could carry on with our day or end up lying on the couch in a food coma until tomorrow.


Regardless of the why, when or how the compulsive eating manifests, the same thing is happening: We are checking out of our bodies in an attempt to manage our feelings. We are using food, and the act of eating it, to ignore a signal that something is going on inside. A signal about a feeling that we may not have been aware of in the first place!


Getting into the food helps us cope with whatever that something is. More often than not, this happens without us even realizing something is going on, let alone identifying what that something is, sitting with it, experiencing and facing it. The food allows us to zone out, to take our attention away from what’s actually happening and transfer our attention to the very narrow focus of food/body thoughts only.


This coping behavior can become such a habit that it creates a feeling of safety and comfort, even when it hurts.


How can comfort hurt? Sounds like an oxymoron. But there’s no question the comfort provided by food involves discomfort—both physical discomfort (tight pants, stomach ache) and emotional discomfort (regret, shame, remorse). Nevertheless, we keep doing it!


We keep doing it because A) sensual pleasure is involved—along with dopamine and serotonin, and B) it’s a habit. The familiarity of habits, even painful ones, is comforting.


If you struggle with emotional eating, compulsive overeating or binge eating, and you've read this far, my guess is you are willing to admit this habit is not serving you. You also are probably willing to acknowledge that at least one, teeny tiny part of you (if not more) wants to be free from this eating behavior. Behavior that is causing you so much distress in your life.


So here is some encouragement. Yes you CAN change your behaviors around emotional eating! It is not easy, but it is possible. And here's a really fantastic, helpful tool to support you on this journey. I call it being NICE to yourself, and it's something I teach and practice with my clients when we do nutrition therapy together.


NICE is a little acronym I invented to help you remember the 4 steps you want to do when the urge to binge or eat compulsively shows up in your day. Here's what being NICE is all about.


How to Be NICE to Yourself:

Notice |Interrupt |Connect|Embody


NOTICE – Step one is simply to notice that the urge to put food in your mouth has come up. Once you notice it, remember this: There must be a feeling that wants attention in me right now. This feeling is causing me to seek comfort or escape by turning to food. I wonder what it is? Noticing is key, it's like the ringing of a bell that wakes you up out of a trance. Noticing is always the beginning. But to identify and work with the feeling, you'll need to first override your habitual behavior pattern (mindless eating) with the next step.


INTERRUPT – Once you notice the urge or trigger to eat has occurred, you have the opportunity to change tracks and interrupt the habitual habit pattern from continuing. One of the best ways to interrupt is to physically move your body. If you are sitting, stand up. Go into a different room, or a different part of the room you're in, and do something different with your body, such as look out the window and stretch. Ideally, if possible, go for a short walk. Taking a break like this—even for just 5 minutes, but preferably 15—allows you to interrupt the compulsion. Once it is interrupted you have a chance to go deeper into self-understanding by working the next two steps.


CONNECT – This is where you check in with and connect to yourself at a deeper level, beyond the surface level of food craving. With an attitude of curiosity, begin an open-minded inquiry about what might be going on. Once you can connect with and identify the emotional feelings that gave rise to the craving, give them a name. (For me, bored, lonely or sad tend to be at the top.)


EMBODY- This part is where the biggest healing happens, and it takes practice. Once you have named the feeling, try to find a place in your body where you are experiencing it as a sensation. Then, bring your awareness to this place. A body scan can often help to pinpoint the tension or discomfort that frequently accompanies emotions. Shoulders, chest and belly in particular are often holding zones. The jaws or fingers may be clenched, the spine may be twisted or slumped. Wherever they are, notice the sensations without judgement. If possible, allow tight areas to soften by breathing into them and relaxing. As you do this be sure to appreciate yourself for taking the time to check in with yourself, and for having the desire to feel safe and whole.


It can be very helpful to write about this process, either during or after. But the most important thing is to do it! Take the time to be NICE to yourself as the cravings come up, and the feelings are happening. Even if you end up in the food, you have given yourself a gift. You have empowered yourself by taking a chance on choosing a different route for the few moments you spent getting connected with and embodying your feelings.


Now another, very important piece of the discovery is needs. Difficult feelings are always teamed with unmet needs that you may, or may not, be able to meet for yourself in any given moment. Ultimately, our goal is to be in touch with our feelings, allow ourselves to experience them, recognize our needs and learn how to meet them in meaningful ways that are truly fulfilling. Obviously, food is not the solution!


But there are times when it seems like it is. Even after you've been NICE to yourself.


Honor this. It's okay to give yourself permission to cope with your feelings by eating. You are not wrong or bad for giving into cravings; you are trying to take care of yourself. This is a good and loving impulse. Even if, as we discussed up above, it does not truly serve you in the end. The impulse to take care of yourself is always loving. And you deserve love.


The more you practice being NICE to yourself, the easier it will become to choose a different path than food. But if you do choose the food, try to remain connected and embodied while you eat it. Allow yourself to experience and savor all the sensations of seeing, touching and smelling the food, as well as chewing, tasting, swallowing and becoming full. Be with it. Be with yourself all the way on the road to freedom.