Food becomes a source of comfort for many people early in life. If you skinned your knee, maybe your mom gave you a cookie to help you stop crying. After a hard day at school, ice cream was what helped. Food does bring comfort, in the immediate sense. However, it doesn’t help over the long haul. Instead, it causes other problems over time.
So after years of using food to quiet emotional pain or discomfort, how do you stop the old habit? Here are some steps to follow that are simple, but require effort and repetition. They do work, but give yourself patience and practice along the way. After all, this pattern has likely been with you for a long time.
1. Set your intention to stop eating when you’re not physically hungry. This is more important than you may realize for it serves as a basis for all of the rest of the steps. Without this commitment to yourself, it will be easier to just eat.
2. Catch yourself in front of the pantry or in the refrigerator. This is crucial to catch yourself in the moment of going for the comfort food, because this is the moment that you can use to make a different choice. You might find it helpful to place some gentle and kind reminders in these areas of your house, or car, or wherever else you might be eating.
3. Stop and do an internal inventory. Ask yourself these questions:
Am I hungry? If so, then allow yourself a small, healthy snack of a protein and carb.
Am I tired? If so, either take a nap, rest/relax, or allow a small protein snack for an energy boost.
Am I bored? If so, find something to do. Have a jar of ideas you can pick from to make it easier to move away from the food. Make them fun or relaxing things, such as paint your toenails, read your favorite magazine, call a friend. Often a 20 minute delay can help you move past the immediate craving to eat.
Am I anxious? If so, find a calming technique. Try music, yoga, journaling, breathing techniques. Then shift your thinking into plan mode. If there is an issue that needs to be resolved, work on it so it doesn’t have to keep spinning in your head.
Am I sad? If so, find comfort elsewhere. This may be from a friend, music, prayer, or writing it out. Sometimes it’s OK to let yourself cry for a while to release what’s built up inside you. Again, working on the issue will help to move you away from your sad feelings.
4. If you decide to eat to quiet your pain anyway, then follow some guidelines to keep it contained. Go for the serving size suggested on the package. Take only that amount and leave the area to eat it, so it’s not too easy to eat more. Choose the healthiest food you can. Eat as slowly as physically possible, focusing on savoring the flavor, the texture. You might find some trick to help limit the time spent eating, like using a kitchen timer or the length of one commercial break. When these become conscious choices, you can have control over them.
5. Most importantly of all, work on being more comfortable with uncomfortable aspects of life and being human. Knowing how to manage and handle painful moments will give you other options to use to cope. Having the confidence that you can handle it and knowing that it won’t last forever also can help you ride out the feelings. Work on your internal dialogue and replace any self-derogatory thinking with thoughts that are more true and positive. Many people find it helpful to create a list of all of the reasons they are awesome that they can refer to when they forget.
If you still engage in emotional eating, notice if the progress is in amount, duration, or frequency and focus on that. Don’t beat yourself up, that will just perpetuate the problem by making you feel bad. It can be overcome. You are wonderful. You are strong. You can do it.
Healthy weight loss can drastically improve health markers; a master in public health provides information on how to curb emotional eating and other healthy life choices.
–L. Nikki Instone, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, published author, and professional speaker. For more from her, visit her website at DrInstone.com.