This article was written by psychologist Dr Jen Nash, who has type 1 diabetes.
Eating to cope with emotion
It’s part of being human to eat in response to our feelings.
All kinds of emotions can compel us to eat, from unwanted moods such as frustration, anxiety, worry or feeling down, to positive emotions like excitement, celebration or anticipation.
Even neutral feelings such as boredom and apathy can be a cause to eat.
In a world where we are often surrounded by food, eating can be a common response.
Is this normal?
There’s nothing wrong with using food to cope with feelings some of the time. Food is great at regulating our emotional states, and it’s a strategy that has been around for as long as we have.
Food has never been just about fuel for the body. Ever since you were a baby and your tears were soothed by your caregiver's milk, food became a powerful symbol of feeling soothed and nurtured.
Is it any wonder then, that regardless of our shape and size, many of us impulsively reach for food as a way of coping with everyday emotions? From stress at work, to conflict in our relationships, most of us need comfort from time to time.
Can it become an issue?
This becomes a problem when we find ourselves in situations where we are experiencing feelings and, rather than identifying them, our brains give us the instruction to eat. This prevents us from normalising, expressing and managing our emotions.
We tend to automatically listen to this instruction and eat - and often, eating does actually make us feel better. It can settle us and soothe distressing emotions.
There's nothing wrong with this - sometimes, only food will do. But, sometimes you may benefit from strategies to identify, express and manage your emotions, rather than dull them with food.
Get in touch with your emotions
When you start to understand where your emotions are coming from, you can start to have a new conversation with yourself when you overeat. Rather than saying unhelpful things like "I'm greedy" or "I'm out of control", you can figure out the deeper reason.
For example, "I'm eating because I feel betrayed that my friend shared private information about me" or "I'm eating because I'm cross with myself for not finishing my work".
Once you’ve identified the real story behind the impulse to eat, what’s next? If someone else is causing your emotions, you may be able express your feelings to them.
Sometimes this isn't possible though. For example, telling an unfair boss what you really think of them when they expect you to work overtime yet again might not be the best idea!
So, what other ways are there to express unwanted emotions without resorting to overeating?
Figure your trigger
- I am….
Some examples of this could be:
- “I am upset at my partner because he/she forgot our anniversary”
- “I am angry with my friend as she shared something I told her in confidence”
- “I am embarrassed that I fell over at the bus stop”
- “I am cross at myself because I didn’t get my work finished’
- I am frustrated that the kids don’t keep the house tidier”
Ways to express your emotions in a risk-free way could include:
- Talking to a friend or family member
- Giving yourself permission to go off and have a cry
- Writing out what you feel, even if you tear it up afterwards
- Express yourself in a safe, physical way, such as exercise
- Distracting yourself with something enjoyable
Small, manageable steps
Even if all you do for now is carry on eating, but successfully identify the reason why, you're making an important first step.
Emotional eating can have roots in early experiences and you may need support to help identify the root cause.
You can always seek support from a psychologist, counsellor or GP, who will be happy to help you.
Difficulties with emotional eating can be managed and getting support can be an important first step on your journey.
To chat to someone about your relationship with diabetes and food, call our Helpline on 0345 123 2399.