How to STOP The Autopilot of Emotional Eating
Many people turn to food, consciously or unconsciously, when facing a difficult problem or when they feel stressed, isolated, bored, or even excited. This is why it is called “emotional eating”! However, whilst we can all eat for emotional reasons, binge eating is a more serious level, and a lot of what happens is unconscious – beyond your conscious control. Let’s break that down now.
When it comes to emotional and binge eating, there are five stages in the cycle that you might not be aware of in the autopilot cycle. This cycle starts with a trigger that leads to a craving that results in a behavior in order to satisfy that craving (binge eating), which delivers a positive reward that satisfies or gets rid of the craving, but it can also result in negative consequences.
Let’s look at these five stages individually to see what’s really going on.
The Five Stages of the Autopilot of Emotional Eating
Triggers for Emotional Eating
There are common categories of triggers that most people will resonate with, like emotions, thoughts, certain people or events that make you feel anger, upset, guilt, etc.
Certain feelings can be triggering, because you don’t want to acknowledge feeling that way, because if you acknowledge you are angry for example, you might not want to have to do something about the situation or feeling that is making you angry. So the feeling here is like a warning signal that you want to ignore or avoid.
What can trigger you to eat in order to avoid a certain feeling or emotion?
- Having a relationship with someone that is manipulative or constantly putting you down.
- Having a difficult boss or co-worker.
- Attending a social event, especially if it involves food, e.g. a birthday party, celebration, or a wedding
This is a stage where you crave something to take that feeling away, to make you feel calm, to not feel or to release your emotions. It is a craving for relief from the emotions that triggered you. It is essential to understand that you are not craving food, you are actually craving the feeling that you think you’re going to feel after you have eaten the food.
It is really important to understand that you might feel it is a physical craving for food, like sugar, chocolate, chips or whatever food you reach for at these times. But actually, it’s the emotional state that you believe you will feel after the foods that you think you are craving. And the two main emotional states of emotional eating are either to feel calm or to feel numb.
Here is why craving helps you when you are triggered by any event.
For example, if you feel angry, stressed, afraid, or ashamed – all of these feelings will trigger a cortisol rush in your body. Cortisol is your stress hormone, and your body will go into stress when these emotions hit.
So you can understand that you are craving a feeling of calmness – to ‘not’ feel angry, stressed etc.
Eating salty, sugary or fatty foods releases dopamine from the pleasure center in your brain. Dopamine counteracts cortisol and calms your body down again.
So what you are actually craving is the dopamine hit that you will get in your brain from eating the food. So it’s the dopamine that you’re craving, the cam that you’re going to feel, not the actual food.
The next stages in the cycle are behavior and reward.
By eating sugary, fatty, or salty food, you satisfy the craving and that’s your reward. Your reward will be the feeling the craving state was looking for: feeling calm, empty, relaxed, numb. But it is important to remember that this is only temporary, because…
The final stage of the autopilot is the consequence.
Although you’re going to achieve the positive experience of that reward, you will also very likely feel negative consequences later, like guilt, disgust, shame, disappointment, regret, feeling angry at yourself, feeling like a failure, hopelessness, etc. And guess what? Any or all of those feelings can be a trigger, and the cycle can start all over again!
Why is your brain triggering you into binge eating?
When your brain gets triggered, it craves feeling differently from how it’s feeling in the triggered moment. All your brain is thinking about is the instant gratification of the reward – feeling calm or numb.
Your brain never thinks of the long-term consequences, and by “long term” that might mean 10 or 15 minutes after the eating actually ends. The only way to help your brain stay out of the autopilot is to break the habit loop. The “habit loop” is stages one to four in the autopilot cycle – Trigger/Craving/Behaviour/Reward.
The brain NEVER thinks of the consequence in the moment.
So you have to practice bringing stage five – Consequence – into your conscious mind AT THE TIME your brain is trying to push you to eat, so that you’re able to make a better decision. You can choose to eat or choose to do something else instead of eating that can also trigger dopamine.
STOP the autopilot of emotional eating.
The tool I want you to use is the word STOP!
At the point you have decided to go into the kitchen, into the fridge, pick up the phone or go down to the shop, you use this acronym STOP.
Stop – stop your brain from running away with you by taking a slow, deep breath.
Breathe in for a count of five. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound for a count of eight.
This mindful breathing exercise alone can help with on-the-spot stress reduction and relaxation.
Think – engage your conscious brain. Use the mindful breathing technique to create a break in the autopilot so you can engage your conscious mind and think about whether eating right now really is the solution for wanting to feel differently.
Options – make a conscious choice. Consider your options and develop a list of alternatives to binge eating, and make a conscious choice to substitute binge eating with an alternative activity.
Pick – choose an alternative response.
- Listening and singing along to your favourite music – humming and singing can help calm us down! It stimulates our vagus nerve which is calming for us.
- Calling a friend.
- Going for a walk.
- Doing one thing that has been on your To-Do list for ages – our brain releases dopamine every time we finish something!
- Painting, drawing or colouring – engage the creative, non-verbal part of your brain.
- Taking a bath or shower and using body lotion to massage yourself afterwards – calming your system down with touch.
- Doing some gentle yoga or stretching.
- Doing a puzzle – something practical that you enjoy and that gives you satisfaction when it is done – more dopamine!
You can write a list of up to 10 things that you can do instead of eating that help you feel calmer or help you discharge the emotion in a different way. This list is just a suggestion but you can come up with your own too – what else calms you down?
Make sure you have your list handy, it could be on your phone or stuck on your fridge, so that when you are being triggered into that binge, you can STOP, take a deep breath, think and consider your options on the list.
This is how to break that habit loop of emotional eating, and give yourself the option of remembering the long-term consequences and making a better conscious decision.