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 often linked to emotional eating.

When it comes to emotional and binge eating, there are five stages in the cycle that you might not be aware of and might be trapped on this autopilot cycle. This cycle starts with a  trigger that leads to a craving that results in their behavior in order to satisfy that craving, which delivers a positive reward that dissolves the craving 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

  1. Trigger
  2. Craving
  3. Behavior
  4. Reward
  5. Consequence

The cycle normally starts with a trigger. There are common categories of triggers that most people will resonate with, like emotions, thoughts, persons, 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, and you might don’t want to have to do something about it. So the feeling here is like a warning signal for your emotional eating disorder.</br.

What can trigger you to eat on autopilot?

  • Having a relationship with someone that is manipulative or constantly putting you down.
  • Having a difficult boss or co-worker
  • Attending a social event, that could be a birthday party, celebration, or a wedding

The second stage is craving. 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 that makes you feel good. 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.

Binge Eating Triggers

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 or 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: feel calm, empty, relaxed, numb, or wherever the craving state was.

The final stage of the autopilot is the consequence

Although you’re going to achieve the positive experience of that reward, you will also 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. 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.

Here are some alternatives to emotional eating:

  • Listening and singing along to your favourite music – humming and singing can help calm us down!
  • Calling a friend
  • Going for a walk
  • Doing one thing that has been on your To-Do list for ages
  • Painting, drawing or colouring
  • Taking a bath or shower and using body lotion to massage yourself afterwards
  • Doing some gentle yoga or stretching
  • Doing a puzzle – something practical that you enjoy and that gives you satisfaction when it is done

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!

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.