For many of us, food offers more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s a source of comfort, joy, and even solace. (How many times have you felt like dinner was the finish line from a hectic day?) But when we rely on food to cope with our emotions, we may find ourselves stuck in a cycle of emotional eating that can be difficult to break.
Before we dive in, I hope you’ll take a moment to celebrate your emotional awareness. The fact that you’re interested in an article that talks about coping without food means that you’re aware of using food as a buffer. This is the first step towards healing!
However, I know it can be frustrating to know that you’re stuck in an unwanted pattern (using food to cope) and also know where you want to go (coping without food) but have no tools to close the gap. Don’t worry – this article will help.
You’re about to learn why we turn to food for comfort, what emotional vs. physical hunger is, and how we can find healthier methods for coping without food. Tools are on the way!
Why Do We Use Food to Cope?
Emotional eating is complex, to say the least. It involves both physiological and psychological factors. To understand why you use food to cope, it’s essential to delve into both the science behind emotional eating, such as brain chemistry, and the psychology behind it, like learned behaviors.
Brain Chemistry Hooks Us Onto Soothing Foods
Your brain chemistry plays a significant role in emotional eating. When you eat certain foods, especially “highly palatable” foods high in sugar and/or fat, your brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
These neurotransmitters create a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, which helps “take the edge off” uncomfortable emotions. Even though the comfort from emotional eating is temporary, this is the beginning of habitual cycle of coping with emotions through food.
Learned Behaviors and Emotional Eating
Learned behaviors from childhood also play a role in emotional eating. For example, your parents or elementary school teachers might have offered treats as a reward for good behavior, or you might have received sweets as consolation when you were upset. These experiences create strong associations between food and emotional well-being that cause people, even as adults, to cope with emotions through food.
Even if you intellectually know that using food as a coping mechanism isn’t ideal, you may continue to use food to cope with stress or anxiety, mirroring the patterns you learned in childhood. This learned behavior can be challenging to unlearn, and it takes dedicated psycho-spiritual upheaval to work through.
Beyond the brain science and childhood conditioning is something even more interesting: the idea of “emotional hunger.”
Understanding Emotional Hunger: The First Step in Coping Without Food
Emotional hunger differs from physical hunger in various ways. While physical hunger is a natural bodily response to the need for sustenance, emotional hunger stems from a desire to suppress or escape from uncomfortable emotions.
In other words, physical hunger is a sign that you have a bodily need (the need for more fuel and energy) while emotional hunger is a sign that you have an emotional need (the need to slow down and see what emotions are rumbling beneath the surface).
Signs of emotional hunger can include:
- Sudden, intense cravings for specific foods, especially “hedonic foods” which are usually high in sugar, fat, or salt
- Feeling hungry even after eating a satisfying meal
- Feeling unsatisfied after a meal even when you’re full
- Eating for reasons other than hunger, such as loneliness or restlessness
- Feeling a sense of guilt, shame, or regret after eating
Emotional hunger can manifest quickly and feel urgent, whereas physical hunger tends to develop gradually. However, sometimes physical hunger can come on rapidly too, especially if you have been physically active or using appetite suppressants such as coffee and caffeine.
Psycho-Spiritual Strategies for Coping Without Food
To break free from emotional eating, it’s essential to develop healthy strategies that address the emotions behind the desire to eat when you aren’t hungry. While I list plenty of tips for coping without food down below, I find it incredibly important to focus on the inner work first.
After all, anyone can tell you to “just reach out to a friend” or “just go for a walk” to cope with your emotions without food, but what if you don’t have the energy for that? Or what if you’re feeling too self-conscious to talk? Or what if you’re too injured to walk or all your friends are busy?
I find that tips for coping without food can be helpful, but the psycho-spiritual work should always come first. After all, friends may come and go, and exercise may come and go (due to injuries, etc.) but you will always have your psyche to fall back upon.
This brings us to the bread and butter of my philosophy around stopping compulsive eating: the Stop, Drop, & Feel method to overcome emotional eating. I coined the Stop, Drop, & Feel to help you address the emotions that trigger emotional eating directly.
By stopping what you’re doing, dropping into your body, and feeling your feelings, you create space for your true emotions to bubble up. Even if you intellectually know that you’re using food to cope with your emotions, you might not actually know what those emotions are – or what all of them are. Even those of us with high emotional awareness can be surprised by the emotions that bubble up when we stop and drop in.
The Stop, Drop, & Feel is all about developing emotional tolerance – the ability to feel uncomfortable without resorting to food as a buffer. As you increase your ability to feel uncomfortable without getting swept away by it, your desire to cope with your emotions through food will decrease.
With diligence and consistent practice, you’ll have the inner strength to cope with your emotions without food by simply sitting with yourself.
Over time, you’ll be able to sit still with anxiety or loneliness without feeling the urge to eat because you will have trained in sitting still with that emotion. As uncomfortable as it may be, you’ve trained in sitting in the eye of the storm, and so it does not push you one way or the other.
Extra Tips for Coping Without Food
With all that said, the Stop, Drop, & Feel takes time to build on itself. Emotional tolerance does not happen within a day. There may be times where you try the SDF and you still want to eat and cope with your emotions through food. That is OK!
In my opinion, as long as you’ve done the Stop, Drop, & Feel once a day, you’ve put in the repetition necessary to build emotional tolerance over time. Even if you reach for food after the SDF, you are still working towards long-term success.
Still, I understand the importance and need for even more coping strategies to manage your emotions without food. I like to think of the Stop, Drop, & Feel as your baseline – if that’s all you do in a day, that is enough; and if you still have energy to keep going, why not use your resources?
Here are a few more tips to help you get better at coping without food:
Keep Track of Your Emotional Triggers in a Journal
To learn how to cope with your emotions without food, it helps to know when you should be paying the most attention. Keep a journal to track your feelings, the circumstances surrounding your emotional eating episodes, and the types of foods you crave.
This enhanced self-awareness can help you anticipate emotional eating episodes and proactively avoid them. For example, if nighttime is a vulnerable time for emotional eating, you can plan to Stop, Drop, & Feel every night after dinner.
Reach Out to Friends or Family When You’re Struggling
Talking to friends, family, a mental health professional, or even an eating psychology coach (that’s me!) about your emotional eating can provide valuable support and guidance. Sharing your experiences and feelings can help to reduce feelings of isolation and shame.
Be diligent about who you trust with your vulnerability. Making yourself feel seen and exposed can be therapeutic, but only if you’re in the presence of people that won’t make you feel judged.
Get Your Body Moving
Is there a better way to cope without food than exercise? Well, yes! You definitely don’t want to use exercise as an unhealthy form of restriction if your body actually needs food. But if you’ve had a long day and you know you’ve eaten enough and you still want to eat, going for a long walk can be highly effective and therapeutic.
The goal is to make sure that exercise is intuitively the right thing for you at that moment (i.e. intuitive movement). Pay attention to your true energy levels and don’t push yourself too far just for the sake of coping without food – you may end up eating anyway.
Focus on Self-Care
I saved the best for last. Self-care is the best way to cope with your emotions without food. (Technically the Stop, Drop, & Feel is a form of self-care, even though it doesn’t always feel good.)
Some other ideas for self-care include taking a hot bath, reading, or engaging in a hobby like indoor gardening (watering and repotting houseplants can be highly therapeutic). By prioritizing self-care, you can improve your emotional well-being and reduce the likelihood of emotional eating.
Getting into a Groove Coping Without Food
There are many perfectly good reasons why you do the things you do around food. Emotional hunger, childhood conditioning, and the normal stressors of life can push anyone to seek comfort from food.
The Stop, Drop, & Feel is designed to help you learn how to cope with your emotions without food by training in sitting with them. It’s not about restricting food or depriving yourself – it’s about training in being the eye of the storm.
If my psycho-spiritual approach to stopping emotional eating resonates with you, then you will LOVE my free ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. You can download it for free below: