Comfort eating and stress or emotional eating are all different ways of saying the same thing.
Understand it to Stop It
Comfort eating is a way to make yourself feel better, so when you get yourself a slice (or 6) of cake you’re trying to change your emotional state. What you’re trying to make better is usually the feeling of being anxious or very stressed because you don’t know what to do to calm yourself down.
And because most of us have no idea how to regulate our emotions (i.e. calm down) we look for substances or distractions to help do that for us.
The workaholic or the person who needs to stay busy is not doing that so much because they enjoy getting things done (even though some do), it’s because they need to distract themselves from their anxiety.
The smoker, drinker and food lover are also coping with the exact same issue. Instead of focusing their attention elsewhere like the person who stays busy, they choose to take substances that are harmful for them long term, but provide relief in the here and now.
What this means is that we are not necessarily drawn to the food because we enjoy it or really like getting high on sugar. We are looking to medicate ourselves and if a pill could do what food did we’d take that.
Sometimes we do. Take a pill and overeat … and stay busy. That’s a lot of running away.
How we Normally Regulate
When a toddler is anxious he runs for his mother. His body is riddled with fear and he finds it not only uncomfortable but intolerable as well. It’s pretty stressful on his body so he looks to get help to make him better.
His mom soothes him by hugging him, rubbing his back and using her voice. He then calms down and returns to play.
What was important in that interaction was the connection between him and his mother. He came to her open and vulnerable, showing her exactly who he was in that moment. She, saw him for what he was, a child in distress and validated him.
In other words she told him that she saw he was scared, that it was okay for him to be scared and that she would help him feel better. That is the connection, being authentic with who you are and how you feel with other people.
Eventually the toddler needs less and less time with his mother until he gets to the point where all he requires from her is a smile or a quick look of recognition, “I see you have fallen down and hurt yourself but you’re okay,” and then he’s fine.
When we’re older we learn to do this for ourselves much of the time. But, we still need other people because life is still stressful. Specifically we need healthy relationships with those closest to us.
A healthy relationship is not necessarily a cozy one where everyone loves each other all day long. A healthy relationship is an honest one, where you may not get along well but at least you can express how you feel, just like the toddler did with his mom.
Honest relationships are a challenge for us because we are afraid that other people will get upset and so we don’t connect with others, our anxiety goes up, stays that way and then we reach for that piece (or 6) of cake.
How Stopping Comfort Eating Works
So far this article has mainly discussed emotions and relationships rather than food so you know where we have to look in order to stop using food for comfort.
The way to stop comfort eating is to seek comfort from your relationships with lots of other people instead of from the food.
We are social creatures and for good reason. Being around other people is crucial for our mental health and well being. It’s no surprise that people who isolate tend to be at higher risk for suicide. Isolation is often one of the worst forms of punishment in prisons and know we see why.
We need close relationships but we also need to hang out in groups – work, school, the bus stop, other parents at little league, enjoying a movie, a festival etc. It’s a need that is hard wired into us. Not meeting that need leads to feeling disconnected from the world.
Re-establishing relationships and regulating our emotions is a process that takes time. I’d recommend reading the guide on this website to help you lose weight and control your eating in the meantime.
Start looking at what makes you anxious, what you are avoiding saying to your parents, boss, spouse, kids and close friends. If you can’t be completely honest (most of us have trouble with that) then you won’t be able to connect authentically and you won’t get that much needed regulation, or calming down.
It’s a difficult and uncomfortable process at first because you’ll feel even more anxious being honest but once you get the hang of it it becomes a lot easier.
You stop comfort eating by changing the source of your comfort from food or substances to connecting with other human beings.
THE EATING LOVE GUIDE (FREE)
The Eating Love Guide has helped many people regain control of their eating patterns, resulting not only in weight loss but also better health and improved self-esteem. To read it online, click here.