The Cycle of Emotional Eating
When we understand emotional eating on a deep level, we can begin to reclaim the power from the cycle. We like to give names to each stage, so they’re easier to spot when they happen in our daily lives.
There are four main stages of emotional eating: trigger, cover up, false bliss, and the hangover.
Trigger: A “trigger” is an event or situation that causes a stressful or painful emotional response. It can be any object, event, or conversation. Triggers create a physical response in the body. Our breathing may speed up or become shallow, or we may start sweating. Emotionally, we might feel angry, sad, or annoyed. Why we have certain triggers as opposed to others has to do with our family histories, our personalities, and mostly, our insecurities.
Cover Up: There are many ways to cover up feelings we don’t want to feel, but one of the most common ways is to eat foods high in sugar, carbohydrates, and fat, such as ice cream, cakes, and cookies. These classic comfort foods are aptly named because they hide the difficult feelings by producing a momentary sense of relief. Classic comfort foods are heavy and difficult to digest. Apart from the brain, digestion demands the most energy. Heavy foods pull energy from the nervous system, where we feel our feelings, and direct it toward digestion. These foods cover up emotions, numbing feelings that started the emotional eating cycle in the first place.
False Bliss: When you eat in order to cover up your feelings, you enter the “false bliss” stage. Characteristics of this stage are a sensation that everything is fine, that there was no issue to deal with in the first place, or that it was just a figment of your imagination. The comfort food paired with the desire to cover up enables us to forget, at least for a short while.
Hangover: Soon, the sensation of bliss and forgetting starts to wear off and the “hangover” sets in. Two types of pain occur during the hangover. First there is the physical pain and discomfort, which occurs after eating too much of a “comfort” food. Then there is the emotional pain, which comes from feeling guilt and shame about not doing what you had originally set out to do (eat clean), repeating a well-worn pattern. On top of all that, you can often feel confused, because you have forgotten or suppressed the original trigger that started the downward cycle in the first place.
A New Trigger: The guilt and shame produced by the hangover often acts as a new trigger. Then the emotional eating cycle begins again. We continue to eat poorly, and the cycle continues. Rather than drawing increased momentum from healthy habits, we feel the reverse, a negative cycle that spirals us downward. Many of us think that we just lack discipline. But the truth is we’re caught in the cycle.
Breaking the Cycle
There are no magic bullets. Breaking free from the cycle of emotional eating begins with understanding the pattern and committing yourself to recognizing it when it shows up. The cycle may continue to happen, but you will become faster at noticing and interrupting it when it does.
Here are four ways to break the cycle:
- Build awareness. Awareness is the first and most important step. With attention, you will learn more about the ways you personally use this cycle and the stories and games you play to avoid committing to what you really want.
- Address the issue directly. The simplest and most direct way to interrupt the cycle is to address the issue directly when you feel triggered. Often emotional eating patterns can be stopped in their tracks when the initial triggers are addressed honestly. If you are unable to speak directly to a person, or the trigger is an object, like an old picture of a relative or the memories of a partner, take a moment to fully feel what you are feeling. The awareness that you are being triggered, plus the permission to fully feel what you feel, will lessen the power of the cycle.
- Build a toolbox of healthy habits. In addition to addressing the issue directly, substituting a healthy habit for an unhealthy one is the next step. With conscious practice, this “toolbox” will become more automatic, and we will find your older habits falling away naturally. You can learn more about these habits by listening to the podcast, but a few of our favorites are taking a walk, drinking a big glass of water, or eating a clean snack.
- Get to the root. When certain habits are not working for us, when they cause us pain and keep us from progressing toward our goals, time needs to be taken to try to understand and reflect on them. Getting to the root means asking ourselves some deep questions about why we do the things we do.
This is a big topic that is not always easily resolved, but we feel that it’s important to address here, even though it’s beyond the scope of this newsletter. Spending some time reflecting on your habits, reading some good personal development books, and working with a coach or therapist can help you uncover the deeper reasons why you’re triggered in the first place.
Here are a few books that our team has found very useful in understanding your triggers, their causes, and how to address them honestly:
Our Wellness Coaches are here to help you uncover your triggers and work through emotional eating patterns. We know that support is the one of the major factors in long-term habit changes. This is why we provide the care and attention of your coaches free-of-charge to help you meet your health goals.
You can book an appointment with a wellness coach here: