Using food to “numb out?”

You can end emotional eating by developing a healthy relationship with your feelings.

Do you find yourself in a pattern of using food to numb or distract yourself from hard situations or feelings? This is a common reaction because many of us have been taught to avoid painful emotions like anger, fear, sadness and grief. Too often we unconsciously suppress our emotions and turn to food (or alcohol, drugs, television, gambling, the Internet and other distractions) to try to avoid “feeling our feelings.” If you’re concerned about your own eating behaviors and patterns (or patterns of those you care about), you may find it helpful to better understand the connections between emotions and eating. Emotional eating is defined as “eating that is influenced by emotions,” and according to Jennifer Taitz, Ph.D., many people who struggle with difficult and painful emotions also struggle with eating problems.

Taitz is a clinical psychologist and author of the book End Emotional Eating. In her book, Taitz shares strategies for learning to develop a healthy relationship with food—as well as learning to develop a healthy relationship with one’s feelings as important strategies for breaking the pattern of emotional eating.

Experiencing a wide range of emotions is an essential part of being human. But many of us have been taught that it’s not okay to be angry (particularly for girls and women) or that it’s not okay to be sad or scared (particularly for boys and men). The steady flow of not-so-helpful shame-based messages we get about feelings from our families, schools, the media and other cultural influences may be part of why so many of us are closed off from – and have learned to suppress – uncomfortable or painful emotions.

Breaking the pattern of numbing or avoiding painful emotions with food (or other substances) begins with developing skills in emotional intelligence. A growing body of research shows the importance of social and emotional learning – for children, youth and adults. Emotional intelligence includes developing self-awareness and an increased ability to notice and navigate our thoughts and emotions – particularly when we’re experiencing stressful situations.

In her book, Taitz provides several exercises that help to build skills in emotional intelligence and she links this information to helping to break the pattern of emotional eating. One important area is the development of mindful awareness of our emotions by noticing the feelings we’re experiencing without judging, suppressing or dwelling on them – and bringing attention to where we experience feelings in our body. Taitz describes the practice of accepting our emotions (rather than acting on them or being defined by them). She encourages us to practice allowing our feelings to come and go, intensify or lessen, stay or pass and to notice how the emotion affects our bodies.

Some find the metaphor of an ocean to be helpful in thinking about feelings. Like waves on the ocean, our feelings may swell and subside regularly throughout our day. Sometimes the waves are big and intense – and at other times they are quieter and more tranquil. Try thinking about your emotional experiences as open and expansive like an ocean – and notice how your feelings temporarily wash over you from time to time. Remember, that underneath it all is a calm, quiet, steady place that we can draw from as we pause, breathe and make decisions about how we might respond to a difficult or stressful situation.

Practicing everyday mindfulness is another way to develop skills in emotional and social intelligence that can help to break the pattern of emotional eating. Mindfulness is a process of active, open, nonjudgmental awareness. It is paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity and flexibility. Neuroscience and psychological research suggests that the intentional practice of mindfulness improves the immune system – as well as increases gray matter in the brain involved with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, empathy and perspective taking.

When we use food to numb painful feelings we also numb or minimize our capacity to experience pleasure and joy. Taitz emphasizes the importance of living fully while learning to accept, feel and regulate the expansive nature of all of our feelings. She shares that struggling against our bodies and feelings brings stagnation and suffering – while accepting our bodies, situations and emotions is the pathway to positive change, freedom, joy and relief from the cycle of emotional eating.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources that focus on nurturing social and emotional health and wellbeing and an acceptance of human diversity – including ways to work with young people to create inclusive and supportive climates. Check out an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments for more information.

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