By Melissa Martin, Ph.D.
Emotional eating refers to a range of behaviors in which individuals eat for reasons other than physiological hunger; and eating is an attempt to self-soothe emotions. The mood determines the food. Individuals eat to try to manage uncomfortable emotions such as grief, worthlessness, hopelessness, anger, anxiety, guilt, or loneliness. Eating is used to escape emotional pain.
When eating, the “feel good” chemicals called endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine are released. Satiety hormones in the stomach and intestines surf around and send messages to the brain. “No more please. You’re full, so stop eating!” shouts the brain. “I must rest and digest,” utters the body. A person feels nauseous and numb or drowsy.
Short-term the feeding frenzy feels gratifying, but the consequent crash creates a cycle. The emotional eating shame cycle begins. “I feel bad for eating so much food. I must be a bad person.” The person eats more and feels more shame, guilt, and remorse. “I feel worthless so I must be worthless.” The cycle continues.
Often, emotional eating involves sweets like chocolate, cookies, candy, cakes, pastries, and ice-cream; however some individuals overdo salty foods. Comfort foods are sneaky; the short-term feeling of euphoric turns into a long-term feeling of disgust.
What happens in the body when a person overeats? The sugar cycle begins when a craving is acted on and an individual overindulges. The glucose (blood sugar) levels rise and in response more insulin is released and then glucose levels fall rapidly. Next, the low glucose levels signal the appetite and the cravings begin again. The cycle continues.
Is it overeating or binge eating? What distinguishes binge eating disorder from emotional eating is the frequency and severity of the symptoms; the degree of distress the behaviors cause; and the degree of body disgust that ensues.
Binge eating disorder is described as recurring binge eating episodes where a person feels a loss of control over eating and episodes are usually not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting.
Symptoms include: bingeing at least once a week for six months, eating large amounts of food quickly without being hungry and/or eating until your stomach hurts, and/or eating in secret due to embarrassment and feeling self-disgust, depressed, distressed or guilty afterwards.
Take an Eating Disorders Screening Tool by the National Eating Disorders Association at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool. There are effective treatments for this disorder so please call a counselor. You are not alone. Visit the Binge Eating Disorder Association at www.bedaonline.com/.
To manage emotional eating you need to learn how to manage emotions. Emotions are part of being human and emotions energize us, give us passion and purpose for daily living, and assist us in relating to other humans. Without emotions humans would be robotic.
Where do feelings come from? Feelings are not produced in your heart. Feelings are produced in your brain in an area called the Limbic System. Saying “I love you with all of my heart” needs to be changed to “I love you with all of my brain.”
Emotions are not in your heart—the heart pumps blood. Two small almond shaped places called Amygdale produce feelings from thoughts, perceptions, memories, and feedback from the body. The Hippocampus, located in the Limbic System, manages memory storage and retrieval.
The brain is full of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and the body is full of hormones. Brain chemicals and hormones influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, conveys the difference between the emotional brain and the thinking brain.
Feelings are expressed through the body and are called emotions; however, the two words tend to be interchangeable. When you experience an anxious feeling, your emotional response may be crying or sighing and the body may respond with a rapid heartbeat, sweating, increased breathing, and an upset stomach. The brain and body work together.
What are you feeling right now as you read this article? How intense is the identified feeling on a 1-10 scale? Are you feeling more than one feeling? Emotional awareness is about listening to your feelings; understanding your feelings, identifying your feelings, accepting your feelings, respecting your feelings, managing your feelings, and expressing your feelings.
However, not everything you feel is a fact; feelings can be fickle at times. Question your feelings before you overeat.
Consider writing an emotional management plan. Evaluate your ability to sooth, manage, and regulate your emotions. Do you escape into food when you are stressed? Reflect upon the physiology of feelings. Develop a strategy to manage emotional reactions and body sensations. Listen to your body talk. Describe how to self-monitor emotional responses.
How do you self-soothe during intense emotional situations? I suggest The Food and Feelings Workbook, by Karen Koenig, as a resource on your healing journey for emotional health and wellness.
You cannot manage your life until you learn to manage your feelings. You cannot manage emotional eating until you learn to manage your emotions.
Brene Brown, a researcher on courage and shame, writes “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions; we also numb the positive emotions.”
[Editor’s note: Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is a child therapist, behavioral health consultant, educator, children’s book author, and a self-syndicated newspaper columnist. View Martin’s website at www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com. She lives in Ohio.]
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