Do you use food as a way of numbing your feelings? So many people do. It could be because you’re stressed, upset, anxious or even just bored. If you’ve been engaging in “emotional eating” for a long time, you may not even realize that you’re doing it. You may know that you’re eating too much, or snacking when you’re not hungry, or turning too often to unhealthy comfort foods, but haven’t been able to break the habit.

I used to live above a Safeway grocery store. I got into a pattern where whenever I’d get stressed or upset, I’d go down to the store and get carrot cake. Often late at night.

At the time I didn’t question it. I’d get the craving, go downstairs, bring the cake back home and eat it (for five or ten heavenly minutes).

After, I’d feel ill and angry with myself. I’d resolve not to do it again. But then I’d find myself doing it again, a couple of nights later.

I hadn’t learned yet to honor the fact that cravings for cake were actually signs of distress.

Distress that cake would temporarily soothe but would never, ever fix. If anything, I’d typically feel worse afterward.

If emotional eating/overeating is a pattern that you find yourself stuck in, here are some thoughts for you that have helped me a lot:

1) Acknowledge the pattern of emotional eating in your life

Be honest with yourself. That’s really the first step.

Is emotional eating something that you do? How often in a given day are you eating because you’re truly hungry, versus eating for other reasons? Sometimes we’re so immersed in escaping life or numbing out, that we’re not even really aware of what we’re doing.

Are you frustrated about it? Do you feel it’s hurting you or your life? Would you like to change it?

This is really important to establish. It will help you to take a step back and observe yourself and your behaviors, versus getting mindlessly dragged along by old habits and ways.

2) Reflect on when it is that you’re most likely to fall into emotional eating/numbing your feelings with food

I’ve worked with a lot of coaching clients on this issue, and most of them get into trouble when they’re alone. Many will numb out by eating and watching Netflix (the food paired with escaping into a good story makes for some powerfully effective distraction/numbing). They find it hard to watch a movie or show without eating the entire time. I struggle with this, too.

Some people get into rituals. I’ve had a number of clients who would buy indulgent food treats on the way home from a stressful day at work, eating them secretly in the car. Or they would buy something binge-worthy at the grocery store during their weekly shopping trip and eat it all on their way home.

I’m at risk on Friday afternoons. I’m usually working alone from home and tempted to indulge myself with too much of a specific chocolate treat that I love, to shove down the built-up stresses from the week (and to celebrate the arrival of the weekend).

Those rituals…watch out for them! Make some new ones, instead, that don’t involve food.

What is it for you? If you know your habits and when you’re most vulnerable, you can start to develop other strategies that target the emotional eating behavior.

3) Get curious about what emotions lie underneath (or trigger) your urge to numb out with food

As I mentioned a moment ago, stress is a trigger for me. It is for most of us.

Accumulated stress over time is the worst, if I haven’t done much to relieve it. Back in my carrot cake days, I was involved in a relationship that was frustrating and stressful. I didn’t have the tools yet to deal with the relationship in a healthy, proactive manner, so I turned to food instead.

The next time a craving hits, see if you can pause and ask yourself what emotion lies underneath. What are you trying to soothe, or avoid?

Keep track of what you discover in a journal or a notes file on your phone. The emotions and patterns that consistently emerge may be quite illuminating.

4) Resolve to care for yourself by addressing these emotions in a healthier way

Once you’ve identified what’s bothering you, ask yourself if there’s a better way you might address it. If you’re sad about something, is there something more effective you could do to care for yourself, rather than simply numbing your feelings?

Perhaps you could journal about it.

I find that sitting down and praying about what is bothering me can be extremely helpful and comforting.

Maybe you need to listen to a sad song and just let yourself cry, to process the emotion instead of holding it inside.

You could text or call a trusted friend and let them know you’re having a tough time. A good chat can do wonders for a sad heart.

If the issue or emotion is significant enough, you may benefit from professional counseling.

Last summer at Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, I heard a fellow physician say that because of the stressful nature of our jobs, all doctors should get regular counseling. I took this cue and started seeing a counselor regularly last fall. It helped so much to have a dedicated space where I could unload whatever was going on for me, and get help processing it. It can be so helpful just to talk things through with someone, instead of carrying it all inside.

5) Find helpful (and healthy) strategies to diffuse difficult emotions

Dealing with your emotions in a healthier manner doesn’t always mean addressing them or trying to fix them. Sometimes you just need to relieve the intensity of the emotion in a better way. I’ve found ways to blow off steam that are way more effective than shoveling down a bunch of fatty carbs and feeling ill afterwards.

Housework helps: I’ll make the bed, or tidy up a messy area, do the dishes, vacuum, clean the bathroom, whatever needs fixing at the time. The physical activity works off emotional energy (scrubbing is great when you’re angry or upset) and you’ll be pleased with the final result. You won’t find any regrets in a gleaming sink! I also find the improved order and harmony in my home to be soothing.

Taking a walk helps a lot. The other night I was upset about something, and walked nearby to a busy (i.e. safe) block in our neighborhood.  I paced up and down that block for twenty minutes. I felt so much better after. Working out has the same effect.

So, to summarize:

  • Cultivate awareness, be honest with yourself about how you are using food.
  • Know the situations and foods that make you vulnerable. Use that information to set yourself up for success instead of failure (for example, not having trigger foods or comfort foods at home).
  • Acknowledge your emotions instead of pushing them down and numbing your feelings with food. Honor and take care of them, however you can.
  • Find new, healthier ways to address difficult emotions. Find ways to respond to your emotions that don’t involve food. Ways that make your life better, not worse.

These positive changes will make you feel so much better than the food ever did, trust me.

Other articles on healthy coping and overeating:

How to Stop Overeating and Improve Your Relationship to Food

Having a Bad Day? Here’s How to Avoid Making It Worse