Ending emotional eating, part 1

I’ve been thinking about starting a small series of blog posts on emotional eating, especially as we are coming into this holiday season. Food is plentiful during this time, and often we categorize these holiday foods as “bad” - candy and sweets after Halloween, turkey and all the fix-in’s for Thanksgiving, and the cookies, cakes, and breads that adorn the month of December.

Do you think it could be possible that you could have a relationship with food that allows you to eat ALL of these things, in moderation, and without guilt, shame, or judgment? Do you think it’s also possible to stop looking at foods as “good” or “bad” and start to just see them as fuel?


I feel like for some of us, that may feel like such a foreign concept that you might be laughing at your screen. Out loud. Wondering what kind of crazy pills I’m on.

Some of you may also be saying to yourself that you don’t want to eat foods in the “bad” category. You may be equating these particular foods or holiday events with fear, anxiety, or dread - feeling like having to eat them is a punishment or hurdle. Perhaps you can’t even see the value in having an “everything in moderation” approach to your relationship with food.

Emotional eating, in its definition, is when we allow our emotions to control or decide our behaviors around food. That could mean restricting our intake of food, due to fears or avoidance. It could also be binging or overeating food, due to other emotions that we might be working to soothe through the comfort that food can often bring us. Either way, when we attach emotions to food as our primary means of relating to it, we end up moving away from allowing our intuition to drive the bus. Instead, we end up in a distant relationship with our intuition - not really knowing what we’re thinking, feeling, or craving - and finding that we are hard-pressed to make mindful decisions about what we choose to eat.

Mindfulness is really the act of intentionally being present, without judgment. When we pair that with behaviors around food, it’s about choosing foods, thinking about foods, and eating foods in an intentional, present-focused, and nonjudgmental way. Can you think of the last time you thoroughly enjoyed food in this way??

There is a lot that goes into mindfulness when it comes to emotional eating. Emotional eating, in its full range, also encompasses a lot of other topics that I will have to probably make later blog posts or a series on - topics like body image, self-compassion, and weight bias. But for now, I hope that by introducing this idea of emotional eating we can start to explore it through this month in ways that will be helpful to you - to help you start to change your own perceptions about and behaviors around food, to ultimately lead toward a more nonjudgmental and intuitive approach to your eating patterns.

Mindfulness, a primer

There is a lot of buzz today about mindfulness. You may hear about it in the media, and if you’re connected with a therapist or PCP, you may even have heard about it from them. A quick google search for the keyword “mindfulness” returned 213,000,000 results, far more than the 108,000,000 for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and many more than the 23,900,000 for the term DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), from which the therapeutic use of mindfulness has grown. Mindfulness, in essence, is the state of being in the present. Not the future. Not the past. The here and now. When you are mindful, you are focusing you attention to the present. A fun way to approach mindfulness is adopting a curious perspective, examining the present as though it is something entirely new and unique. More on this later.

We are finding that you can receive a lot of benefit from practicing mindfulness. Research has linked mindfulness to an increased ability to manage stress, better work-life balance, and benefits to mental and physical health. Recent research has also shown a connection between mindfulness practices in the workplace and improvements in attention and focus, with some benefits proposed for more short and longer-term use or practice. Further, a large analysis of current research literature indicates that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) can be effective when used to treat anxiety and depression, and really do support the use of MBT in therapy. It is important to note, that in comparison to other treatment methods, MBT still has a way to go. More research is needed to further validate it; this is happening, and the potential outcomes are promising.

I use mindfulness as a part of my practice, and many have reported finding it helpful to deal with their symptoms coming from anxiety and depression. However, it is not an easy practice, and many have also reported that it can be difficult to engage in. It is also not a panacea, and just like most things, won’t “cure” your problems immediately. When used in the course of therapy, mindfulness practices can become a powerful tool in your toolbox. Working together with a therapist, you might find ways that MBT can be helpful. Dr. Ashley will be creating some videos on mindfulness, which you might also find helpful in deciding whether you would benefit from scheduling an appointment with us.

A good ole' sit & think

I started thinking about this topic while I was rocking my youngest son back to sleep this morning (5:50AM). While rocking back and forth in the glider hoping that my son would go back to sleep long enough that I could have a dream, I started to envision all of the things I needed to do today. Church, cleaning, paperwork, taking care of the kids, taxes, mortgage, the nature of string theory and how it could relate to the human mind... In my early 20's this kind of processing would have required two, maybe three, cups of dark-roast coffee. Alas, this was not to be in my morning. Instead, my son looked up at me, eyes wide, as if saying, "I'm ready to go, why aren't you?" The silence we enjoyed together was ended by his near-toddler egging and grunting. "Time to go," it meant.

As much as I would have preferred for my son to have willingly fallen back asleep, there is a silver lining to our quiet time together. I believe it is pretty well accepted that we live in a noisy world. Cars, airplanes, music, construction...all noises most of us experience on a daily basis. This is a modern phenomenon, though. Imagine 100's of years ago when we did not have the same level of noise. What would you experience at night? Silence. Today, when we experience that it can be somewhat uncomfortable and unsettling. Where did the noises go? Why aren't there cars driving down my street, or the noise of my neighbors yelling in excitement? Did something happen? 

Some research has linked the experience of noise, or noise pollution, in the office and community, to increased stress, sleep loss, and psychological symptoms, but not with psychiatric disorders. Interestingly, it also leads to increased levels of chatecholemine secretion - this is a hormone that is helps us respond to stress (think fight or flight). Scientists and clinicians have been aware of this for awhile now. The research on this subject is amazing - noise pollution, coming in the form of airplane and jet noise, has an impact on children's neurodevelopment, and can lead lower reading scores and slower development of cognitive and language skills!

Now, I am not saying that you should cancel your plans to visit New York City next summer. Rather, as a psychologist in clinical practice, I would encourage thoughtful exploration of the amount of time you, and your family, spend in quiet thought and exploration. Do you have the television on as soon as you and the kids get home up until dinner, and even during? Try to see what it is like without it on. For a long time I had gotten used to having the news on 24/7 - it helps me focus and provided useful distractions during my years in school. I know it can be hard to make such a shift. The television can become a part of the family, always there when you need it. If this is the case, try a week without it, and instead turn on the radio. "Alexa, play my 'keep my mind off the fact I am not watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones' radio." 

Although it may seem small, the importance of adapting to this change is significant. Thanks to advances in technology, any show that I want to watch is available to me. Type it in online, or enter the channel number into my remote, and voila, my desire is satiated. This is also known as instantaneous gratification - the opposite of our childhood archnemesis, delayed gratification (actually a hero). For children especially, the development of the ability to delay gratification can lead to positive outcomes in school and in life. The same can be said for us as adults. Our ability to delay gratification is synonymous with impulse control. Having media and electronic stimuli available nearly everywhere really may not promote the development of impulse control. The practice of sitting with our thoughts, without acting, without avoiding, without judging, even, is tough. Yet, doing so can be good for our health

As I finish writing and researching this post, the sun is now up. My youngest son has now eaten his way through his breakfast. I have not gotten back to sleep. I am grateful for that. I was given this gift of extra time with my son that I otherwise would not have. I look forward to see what other aspects of my day this will change. 

Give it a try, today, tonight or tomorrow. Spend some time in thought. In silence or quiet. One of the shows my oldest son loves is Sarah and Duck. In it, Sarah, the main character, and duck, her pet, spend time in thought. They call it, "sit and think." I would encourage you do the same. Give yourself the time and space to have a sit and think of your own. See what happens.

For some more information and helpful tips on mindfulness, consider scheduling an appointment with us.