Eating our hearts out when there is too much on our plate: the psychology of “comfort eating”
Eating is arguably at the very centre of our being. It plays a complicated role in our daily lives and wellbeing, as well as a key part in how many of us socialise and spend time with others. For very few people, food is merely a means of staying alive; eating only what is needed in order to maintain their health and their ability to function throughout the day. For the majority, however, food has a more complex role in their wellbeing; it can be an opportunity to socialise with loved ones, a rite of passage or a ritual to mark a special occasion (such as a birthday cake or wedding cake). It can also be a way of self-soothing in times of distress (widely known as comfort eating), and it can also be a sign of difficult economic times and social hardship when food is scarce.
The fact is, for the vast majority, food is one of life’s great pleasures. Many people, therefore, use food as a way of soothing their emotions from time to time and arguably there is nothing wrong with eating for comfort every now and again.
Comfort eating, or “emotional eating” as it is more commonly termed by psychological therapists, becomes problematic when it becomes our automatic response to soothing difficult thoughts and feelings, however.
If every time we got bored, sad, or stressed, we ate half a cake, for example, it wouldn’t be long until we struggled with obesity and the many physical health co-morbidities that often accompany obesity. These may include Diabetes, high-blood pressure, muscle and joint complaints, as well as difficulties with basic activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing. And with obesity often comes an array of complex mental health co-morbidities too, such as low self-esteem, social anxiety, self-loathing, and depression.
Emotional eating may prove a distraction from life’s great abundance of stressors; those precious few minutes where it’s just you and your favourite treat. Many people who have this relationship with food describe these moments as providing a brief pause in their levels of stress, not dissimilar from someone who gets drunk on alcohol to numb their emotional pain.
Overeating by emotional eating often becomes a vicious cycle that is difficult to break: experiencing certain emotions can lead to emotional eating, leading to reduced low self-esteem, guilt, and shame after the episode of eating, followed by greater susceptibility to stress and a greater dependence on food as a method of trying to soothe these emotions. The irony is that, in time, food ends up becoming the aggravator, and not the comforter.
It is important to know that if you struggle with emotional eating or a complex relationship with food and eating as a method of coping with emotions, professional help is available. Psychological therapy can support “emotional eaters” to have a healthy relationship with food and with eating, so that they can eat their favourite treats in moderation, but without depending on it to soothe difficult emotions. This often results in maintainable weight loss without the need for diets and improved wellbeing. Through psychological therapy, individuals can develop more appropriate strategies to soothe difficult emotions than by emotionally eating; these strategies will arguably result in a greater sense of comfort and self-soothing without the subsequent guilt and shame that often accompanies emotional eating.
If you feel you struggle with emotional eating, State of Mind Psychology Services can help.