There are five primary reasons why we turn to food – either in emotional eating, overeating, or binge eating. In each case, we’re eating to meet a need – and not because we’re deficient, a slug with no will power, or a flawed, terrible being.
No matter how we’re using food, we heal by turning towards our pain, relating to it with kindness and compassion. We shift the overeating through a shift in our relationship – how we relate to our needs, our feelings, and our very selves. When we heal the underlying relationship, we can change our behavior without getting so “stuck.”
In each case, I’ll describe the need that drives the overeating as well as tools to shift. In particular, I share how the 6 practices of growing human(kind)ness, my therapeutic approach to healing food suffering, can help. (The 6 practices of growing human(kind)ness are grounding, nurturing, flowing, acceptance, centering and compassion.)
While this article covers the emotional or psychological reasons for overeating, it doesn’t cover the physical reasons. Physical reasons for overeating include low blood sugar, food allergies or intolerance, sugar sensitivity, candida overgrowth, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, and more. I don’t cover them here as they aren’t my area of expertise. However, they are equally valid and worth exploring.
1. Fight or flight – This is eating to soothe the build up of anxiety, fear, inner tension, or stress. In this instance, overeating is almost like a panic attack. When you finally eat the donut or the chocolate cake, you’ve “had” it. The anxiety has reached its breaking point, and you turn to food to cope.
The metaphor I use is that of a tea kettle that reaches a boil. The kettle boils, the whistle blows, and the steam and pressure finally releases. In this instance, when you binge or overeat, you initially feel better because you’ve lowered the anxiety and stress. You’re not in fight or flight anymore. But then you feel terrible for bingeing.
Here’s what to do instead:
1. When you’re in the intense space of wanting to binge, you need to protect yourself, to ride the storm of emotion without overeating. I find the damage control tool from EBT, emotional brain training, very helpful in lowering the build up of stress.
2. Find ways to come down, to lower anxiety, overarousal, inner tension, or intense energy. This is the practice of flowing.
3. Work on lowering the internal and external stressors in your life. This is the work of centering – questioning our shoulds and expectations – as well as nurturing – finding ways to care for our deep needs. In my experience, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to be binge free if I’m pushing myself like a slavedriver. Relaxing our standards for ourselves goes hand in hand with decreased overeating.
2. Comfort eating – Eating to nurture, soothe, comfort, nourish or care for unmet needs or feelings. We may bury our true needs for belonging, love, acceptance, comfort, and companionship, telling ourselves we can survive without them. Or we may feel too vulnerable to express our needs honestly.
We may be so used to caring for others that we feel guilty or afraid in caring for our own needs. We minimize our own needs as we overextend ourselves and take on the needs of others.
We may comfort ourselves with food when we’re grieving; when we’re feeling sad that our needs aren’t acknowledged, met or understood. We may eat to soothe our disappointment over life’s no’s.
Again, we initially feel better – particularly because we typically choose “comfort foods” when we’re wanting comforting – high fat, high starch, or high sugar foods like ice cream, pizza, or buttery mashed potatoes. These foods also spike certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which is why we initially feel so good. However, we tend to get caught in craving cycles where we want more and more.
What to do instead:
1.The practice of nurturing – caring for unmet needs – helps you become both more aware of your buried needs and ways to move through the anxiety about caring for them.
2. Grounding – regular, rhythmic self care – helps you feel capable, strong, nourished, vital and whole. It tells you, “I have what I need.” This base of support allows you to care for yourself with greater honesty and attention.
3. Use the practice of centering to question the thoughts and beliefs that say, “I can’t care for my needs,” or “My needs aren’t that important.” Centering can help you create stronger boundaries – what is my responsibility vs. what is someone else’s responsibility?
4. The practice of acceptance helps us mourn what we can’t change, so we can move forward and change what we can.
3. Numbing out - In this case, we either can’t or don’t want to feel our feelings. This is because it feels too vulnerable to touch our feelings – we may feel afraid that we can’t handle our feelings; we may numb from our feelings because it triggers deep grief (all the things we wish were different), or we may suppress our feelings because we don’t want to feel the isolation when they aren’t acknowledged by others.
When the vulnerability becomes too much to bear, the brain moves into self protection mode. We don’t even allow ourselves to feel our feelings or to have needs – it feels too scary to have them and then feel the void when they’re not filled.
Many of us learned to disassociate from our feelings and needs from a very early age. If, as children, our needs were minimized (“It’s not so bad”), suppressed, edited (“You can’t be hungry – you just ate lunch two hours ago!”), or denied, we learn to eventually stop needing. We learn to turn them off.
We also numb out because we feel ashamed. We see something we don’t like about ourselves and we hide from it in food.
What to do instead:
1. Safety is crucial. Create physical safety with grounding, regular, rhythmic self-care.
2. Create emotional safety with compassion – softening self judgment, blame, and shame.
3. Find a compassionate witness. Whether it’s a 12 step group, a church group, a friend, a loved one, or counselor, we all need someone to listen to our hurts and help us process them.
4. The practice of centering can help you soften the shame that says, “I should be better/different/more _____ (fill in the blank.)
5. The practice of acceptance helps us mourn – to grieve what we can’t change – so that we can move forward and change what we can.
4. Frustration - This is when “frustration turns foul,” to use the words of developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. In an average day, there are many things that go wrong – the dishwasher breaks, the babysitter’s late, the bill’s overdue, the traffic’s stalled – not to mention the larger frustrations of life!
When these frustrations reach a boiling point, we get stuck. We’ve had it, we’re over it, we’re done with what isn’t working. Eventually, we explode. We explode at others, at ourselves, or in food. Like the tea pot, we’ve boiled over again.
What to do instead:
1. Change what you can change. Can you move to lower the frustration in some way? Do it!
2. If you can’t change the situation, move to these alternatives. First, as frustration is an intense emotion, your first priority is to ride the wave of the intensity without bingeing – not to explore the deep source of the frustration. The damage control tool from EBT, emotional brain training, is also helpful in this case.
3. When the intensity lowers, move to inquiry. Acknowledge your frustration. We’re very quick to say, “It’s all good.” Or, “I’m okay,” when we’re honestly seething inside. Give yourself time and space to move the emotions out of you. Consider venting on a piece of paper, I’m frustrated about…. and let yourself write down all the things that are frustrating you.
4. Move the energy. Use the practice of flowing to move energy. Go for a bike ride, a brisk walk, a run, punch a punching bag, let yourself shout into a pillow, or throw rocks into a pond. (Hard!)
5. Let yourself grieve. This, again, is the practice of acceptance. Let yourself feel the sorrow of, “This isn’t working and I don’t like it.” Cry your tears of frustration. We feel much better after we cry – partly because scientists have discovered that we have toxins in our tears. Crying is a way of cleansing the body. Reaching this point of acceptance helps us move forward and find ways to cope with what we don’t like.
5. Self attack
When things go wrong, many of us quickly move into anger, blame and judgment. Blame and judgment work this way: either it’s someone’s fault – or more typically – it’s all our fault. We blame ourselves for everything that happens in our lives; we blame ourselves for being deficient; we blame ourselves when we can’t make life conform to our ideas of how things should work.
When we’re caught in a space of blame we move into shame - “I’m bad.” I’m bad because all these bad things are happening to me…
This is too much to bear. Animals die without contact, closeness and love. Our spirits die, too.
To cope, we hide. We hide from ourselves – from our hearts, from others, and from love. Like a dog who hides behind the couch when he’s pooped in the house, we hide when we’ve been “bad.”
We hide from our goodness. We take refuge in our “badness” – and we do this by eating. We overeat to hide, and then we overeat to punish ourselves. We binge because it keeps us from the self care that helps us feel good. We eat because we know it will make us feel like crap – fat, out of control, disgusting, gross.
What to do instead:
1. When you notice that you’re eating to punish yourself, be very, very, very kind to yourself. Adding more blame and judgment only makes it worse.
2. Find a compassionate witness, someone whom you greatly trust, who can listen as you pour out your regret, sadness, and sorrow. When you’re in this tender space, you need to be reminded of your goodness – not to be reminded of all of your shortcomings.
3. Practice compassion and self forgiveness.
4. Even if you don’t feel like it, return to grounding as soon as you can. Even if you feel like a hypocrite, practice doing the things that care for your body – like exercise, eating regular meals, or resting.