How Emotions Affect Our Bodies and Our Eating
Have you ever been so excited that you couldn’t sit still, or felt so blue that you had trouble eating or sleeping?
It’s no secret that what you think and what you feel can impact your body. It’s a normal part of life, and when feelings are experienced and expressed freely and without judgment, there’s little to no lasting physical impact. But repressed emotions can take a toll on both your body and your mental energy — and even lead to health problems.
Whether it’s a sporadic occurrence or a routine behavior, emotional eating is a common manifestation of bottling up overwhelming feelings, and if you’ve ever chosen a bag of candy to avoid expressing your emotions, you are far from alone. But it’s important to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings and to understand the effect they have on our bodies and our behaviors.
Keep reading to learn more about what you can do to address emotional eating.
The Effect of Emotions on Our Bodies
Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. Good emotional health arises from being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and having healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress.
But life isn’t perfect, and sometimes the stress, sadness, and anxiety that arise from normal but unwanted changes in life — like losing a job or the loss of a loved one — can disrupt your emotional health and leave you feeling like something just isn’t right.
"Organs hold emotions,” says Dr. Melanie Carminati, PT, DPT, GTS, NCPT, of Inspira Physical Therapy. “Unprocessed emotions, with very gentle hands-on encouragement, can be released, freeing individuals from varied gastrointestinal, abdominal, pelvic and respiratory dysfunction. Our society is more aware of physical manifestations of stress and trauma presenting in our muscles.”
Negative feelings — like helplessness and repressed anger — can create chronic stress in the body, which can lead to hypertension, create hormone imbalances, damage to the immune system, and even decrease your lifespan.
"But fighting these feelings is counterproductive, because even negative feelings can carry important messages. "
But fighting these feelings is counterproductive, because even negative feelings can carry important messages. For instance, anxiety and anger may point toward threats to our well-being, and resentment can be a signal that something needs to change in a relationship. It can be healthy to experience and learn from these feelings that make us uncomfortable, and to learn to express and process both our positive and negative emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
The Effect of Emotions on Our Eating
Our feelings offer insight into our fears, joys, and desires, and they should be explored without judgment, and without being stuffed down by emotional eating.
"Emotional eating happens when you eat to fill a need other than physical hunger."
Emotional eating happens when you eat to fill a need other than physical hunger — like reaching for a bag of chips when you’re anxious, celebrating a promotion by indulging in a special meal, or swallowing hurt feelings with a bottomless bowl of chocolate-cherry ice cream.
There is some science behind that urge, as parts of the brain are rewarded by the consumption of high-sugar or high-fat comfort foods. But this false “fullness” can never really satisfy, especially when you’re eating to compensate for uncomfortable feelings, because that initial relief is often followed by feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and shame, which gets added to the initial emotional trigger for eating in the first place. When we ignore these triggers and keep reaching for temporary food remedies, unhealthy eating patterns can be the result.
The reassuring news is that if this behavior sounds familiar, you’re not alone. And there are things you can do to reduce emotional eating and develop healthier habits.
How to Free Yourself From Emotional Eating
Freeing yourself from emotional eating rests on leaning how to manage the emotions that are triggering unwanted eating behaviors. This requires acknowledging that you’re having these feelings to begin with. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know yourself better.
Awareness can be your most powerful ally in overcoming emotional eating and developing new, healthier habits. When you have a better understanding of how emotional eating is impacting you, you’re better equipped to make the changes that are more in alignment with your goals and desired lifestyle.
Start a Feelings Journal
Keeping track of what you feel, and when, can help you get in touch with what’s going on inside and even help you spot patterns you might want to address. Writing things out is a great way to process those feelings that otherwise might have gotten ignored, bottled up, or stuffed down with emotional eating.
When you’re able to name your feelings — e.g., anxiety, boredom, or loneliness — without judgment, you’re better equipped to work through them. Exploring your feelings in a journal can also prompt you to be more mindful of your thoughts and emotional state during the day, too.
If you commonly reach for the same snack over and over again when you’re feeling stressed, consider donating those foods to get them out of your pantry, and don’t buy any more. You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, and that holds for when you’re feeling upset, too, as you’re more likely to load your basket with crave-worthy comfort foods in those emotional moments.
If you’ve got some stress or other strong feelings to burn, you can step away from the pantry to engage in physical exercise, practice some deep breathing and soothing meditation, or channel that energy into a new or favorite hobby.
When you spot patterns of emotional or mindless eating, you can strategize how to break the cycle. If you’re eating because you’re tired, maybe a walk around the block or a nap would be a better option. If your emotional eating is tied to feeling frustrated or deflated after a hard day at work, you can instead do some yoga or sit in meditation to reduce your stress levels.
Sometimes the best distraction from emotional eating urges are quick and simple, like calling a friend or singing along with your favorite song. Basically, any activity that helps you to feel calm and relaxed will be beneficial.
Journaling about your feelings can help you identify what is literally eating at you, but what can you do to soothe yourself when you’re tempted to start snacking instead?Making sure you’re body is nourished is a good place to start, and when you’re making healthy eating choices to satisfy true hunger, it can be easier to spot emotional eating urges and stop them in their tracks.
Cultivating gratitude can also be key. You don’t have to pretend to be happy if you’re not, but choosing to focus on the positive things in your life can improve both your health and your quality of life.
"Do you need a personal cheerleader or coach? Be that constructive and caring voice for yourself."
Also pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Since feelings of guilt and shame aren’t uncommon with emotional eating, it’s important to take care in how you talk to yourself before and after an instance of emotional eating, and as you go about your day in general. Do you need a personal cheerleader or coach? Be that constructive and caring voice for yourself. Consider that every setback is an opportunity to learn and to make a better plan going forward.
You can even use self-care practices — like soaking in an aromatherapy bath while reading an engrossing book, or taking a mental health day filled with your favorite activities — as rewards for your progress.
Emotional eating can be a deeply ingrained habit, and making these changes can take time. It also might require a combination of strategies and experimentation to overcome these eating triggers. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to ask for help, like finding a support group or a therapist who specializes in helping clients with emotional eating.
Learning how to express your feelings in constructive ways — instead of feeding them — will help to free you from emotional eating, improve your overall health, and develop your emotional resilience. You may find that you come to view challenging times with optimism, because you know your hardships will lead to personal growth instead.