I’ve been wanting to write this post for a very long time.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with emotional eating. If you’ve ever eaten an entire box of ice cream sandwiches because you feel miserable and just want to escape, you know exactly what I mean.
I have tons of love and compassion for anyone who shares this struggle, because it’s a bear. It’s an ugly cycle of excess, loathing, and then resolving to be different tomorrow. How can we make it stop?
The short answer has nothing to do with food. It’s about learning to navigate the feelings that make food seem like a viable escape in the first place.
The good news – there are so many steps we can take to get to a better place so we can eat for pleasure and health, not to dull pain. That’s what I want to talk about today.
But first, a little background. I got the idea for this post when I came across a book about emotional eating – 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food by Susan Albers. I’m always collecting new ideas, and thought this book would be an amazing reference for the Fit Energies collection.
My excitement dampened somewhat when I remembered that I’ve already got more than a dozen books sitting in my office waiting to be read. Um, yeah. I have a little thing for books.
I exercised self control for once and have postponed my purchase. But as great as I’m sure this book is, there’s no reason to delay the topic. It’s too important.
I gave myself a fun challenge: generate my own list based on everything I’ve picked up over the years. I’m such an info nerd that I’ll still buy the book someday, if for no other reason to compare my list to hers. I’m curious to see her ideas.
In the meantime, though, I love a good brainstorming session! That got me going.
Ok, so here’s exactly what I did. Using online reviews of the 50 Ways book, I saw that she puts her suggestions into five categories: meditation, ways to change your thoughts, relaxation, enjoyable distractions, and social relationships.
I reordered the five categories to reflect what I’ve found most useful. For example, as much as I love meditation, it’s not the first thing I think of when I’m in a tough spot. Hmmm, a pint of ice cream or a mountain meditation?
My ranking of the five categories emphasizes relaxation and learning to think in new ways, then the others:
- Think differently.
- Find enjoyable distractions.
You might be totally different.
I like to think of each of these categories as ports in a storm—places we can go when the emotional weather turns dark. But how exactly can we put them to good use? Let’s go through specific ideas for each one.
CALM AND RELAX YOUR BODY
Are you able to truly relax on a regular basis?
It’s worth spending some quality time with this question, because it’s not something that comes naturally to everyone.
Relaxation is especially important at night, when tensions that build up over the day can prod us to find a way to take the edge off. And know this: our bodies are on a mission to take the edge off. If WE don’t consciously make it happen ourselves, our bodies will get us there some other way.
Ever consumed a ton of starchy or sugary foods only to collapse in a sluggish heap on the couch? Your body just might be using the carb-fest as one misguided way to get much-needed down-time.
For me, lifting weights has a surprisingly calming effect. Or maybe not so surprising: it’s probably some combination of the physical effort, the thinking behind my workout (which provides a nice distraction), and perhaps even the meditative quality of the movements themselves. The gym also provides a real-time escape from my phone, my projects, and other stressors.
The key here is not lifting, but trial and error to find what works for you. Here are ten specific steps to get you started on the road to relaxation:
- Breathe. It sounds so basic. But stay with me: we communicate with our brains by the way we breathe. Shallow breathing tells the brain that all is not well – something bad must be happening, or we wouldn’t be so huffy puffy. Deep breathing sends the opposite message. Everything’s oooookaaaay. You can check out some nice exercises to help train your breathing here, courtesy of Girls Gone Strong. Then take some nice, deep breaths and send little love messages to your brain.
- Self massage. Massage is a wonderful way to relax, of course, but a full massage isn’t always practical. Luckily, there are all kinds of options for self massage: foam rollers, lacrosse or tennis balls, and massage sticks are all nice ways to work the kinks out.
- Stretch. Gentle stretches can be both calming and incredibly healthy. Here are four smart stretches, plus a bonus breathing exercise, from one of my favorite bloggers.
- Do relaxing yoga of any kind. News flash: it doesn’t have to be a full class and you can do it right at home. I am currently enjoying the Wildfire Yoga program from Neghar Fonooni, with quick flows that are well under ten minutes.
- Go for a restorative walk. Credit goes to Dr. Jade Teta for opening my eyes to the magic of a restorative walk. It’s not power walking. Not brisk in any way. Just a calm stroll at a comfortable pace for any distance.
- Go for a brisk walk. Relaxing is not always about slowing down. On the other end of the activity spectrum, a brisk walk or a strenuous hike could be just the thing.
- Lift weights. Lifting weights is sometimes known as iron therapy, for good reason. With the right level of experience, lifting becomes meditative and a true escape. It’s my go-to strategy.
- Do some cardio. Jogging. Stairs. Rowing. Whatever you like.
- Immerse yourself in water, in whatever form you have it. A swim. A hot bath or shower. One of those vibrating foot baths. A steam room, sauna, or hot tub. A walk on the beach.
- Take a nap. Personally, naps make me feel groggy. But this is about you, not me! If naps comfort you, then get to napping, mama.
CHANGE YOUR THOUGHTS
Our brains are thought factories, churning out all kinds of messages on an ongoing basis. For those of us prone to emotional eating, those thoughts can unfortunately fuel a binge.
How can we use our thoughts to help us navigate away from the ugly places?
With some effort, we can learn to *see* our thoughts for what they are and respond effectively. This ability amounts to a superpower.
For me, I saw the most amazing benefit when I changed the way I looked at rest.
For years, I played out the same narrative in my head. I’d come home feeling really tired, and I’d summon the willpower to work.
Typical thoughts: I am buried and so behind! I’ve got to catch up on these emails!
I’d eat a good dinner. And then I’d keep eating, and eating, and eating. The 30 minute dinner I planned would turn into a steady hour of food. Or more. Some days I’d still get a little work done, but other days I’d feel completely disgusted with myself and collapse on the couch.
One day I did a little experiment.
After eating dinner, I gave myself the option of not working. Even though the voice in my head told me I must work, I said no. It was ok to rest.
I felt incredibly guilty.
I had ice cream in the freezer.
I didn’t eat it. Or anything else.
So interesting! The overwhelming cravings that usually dominated my evenings just evaporated.
Let’s see what might help you. Here are ten specific ways to challenge common thoughts that can be misleading, counterproductive or downright destructive.
- “I’m hungry.” It could be hunger, but it might not be. Challenge that thought: check for physical signs of hunger. Empty feeling in your stomach? Low energy? A bit light-headed? Or is it about something else entirely—thirst, anxiety, boredom, habit? If it’s really hunger, please eat. But if it’s not, think about what else could scratch the itch.
- “I deserve a treat.” Yes you do! But how about a treat that is not food? Challenge that thought: are there guilty pleasures you enjoy? Maybe you love People magazine on vacation, but don’t get it at home? A new treat on Netflix? Playing a game or doing a crossword puzzle? It’s fascinating that we often think of these little diversions as a waste of time, but clearing out the pantry? Oh no, that’s productive?!
- “I’ve got to work.” Really? You’ve got to, or is that your own internal programming at work? Challenge that thought: “It’s ok to rest.” Sit on the couch and sip fizzy water. Now, to keep it real, sometimes we really do need to get things done. But if you know that, say, paying your bills is going to make you eat an entire box of crackers, do that in the morning or on the weekend, when your energy is better.
- “X is not going well.” Ahh, a good one. We know what we want, but life often has other plans, doesn’t it? Challenge that thought: try the “What Went Well” exercise, which is a scientifically proven way to nurture gratitude and feel better instantly. I wrote about it here.
- “I really screwed up.” Feeling disappointed in yourself? Hate your body? We’ve all been there. Challenge that thought: try compassion. Think of how you’d respond if a close friend said this, and give yourself the gift of that same wisdom. Why is it that we’re so generous with others, but completely stingy with ourselves? No more!
- “I’m worried.” Worry is an illusion that we can control more than we really can. We can control ourselves, and that’s about it, so a lot of worry is wasted energy. Challenge that thought: try acceptance. It’s very human to be attached to the idea of certain outcomes – a child behaving, a financial problem getting resolved, a health issue clearing up. When we resolve only to do our best, but let go of those attachments to things we can’t control, it’s a gift. Be generous with yourself and trust that you will navigate through whatever happens.
- “I already screwed up today, so what the hell.” This is classic all-or-nothing thinking, and it’s probably one of the biggest barriers to true fitness. Challenge that thought: fitness starts with the next action — the very next thought, step, bite, whatever. I don’t care how much you just ate or what you did, the only life you’ll ever have is right now. Repeat after me: all or nothing is nothing.
- “I suck because I have no willpower.” Willpower is so overrated, love. Challenge that thought: how about accepting that we’re only human, so we’d better put some systems in place to support our intentions? Along these lines, the ability to learn (and unlearn) habits can be very powerful. Habits are the behaviors we carry out in response to a trigger, and in anticipation of a reward. Notice what may trigger you to eat emotionally – often where you are and what you’re feeling – and set out to find a new behavior for a new reward. My favorite resource on habit building is Charles Duhigg’s classic book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
- “I’m miserable.” In some of the best tough love ever, my coach Jill says that “misery is a choice.” Ugh, so difficult to swallow, right? But so true. Challenge that thought: try being curious. Think of a negative feeling as a visitor with an important message for you. What is she trying to tell you? Trying sitting with her for a bit instead of trying to avoid her with food. For example, if you’re feeling jealous of something a friend has, it may be a sign of something you need to nurture in your own life. Mull that over and get super curious about how YOU can have more of that in your own life. Curiosity is a bouncer that stops misery in its tracks – there’s just no way to be miserable and curious at the same time.
- “I have a plan and just need to make it happen.” We’re smart women, so we often have an image of just how our days should go. What we should eat. How we should exercise. And so on. The magic often happens, though, when we look beyond fixed ideas. Challenge that thought: if the *obvious* plan isn’t working, try being open to something else. What if there were no rules? What if someone gave you a million dollars to figure out another way? Chew on that for a bit, using the ideas here or other resources you’ve got handy.
FIND ENJOYABLE DISTRACTIONS
We all need pleasure in life. With so much to do, it can be tempting to prod ourselves to work more and always delay gratification, but this thinking is actually very risky and counterproductive.
Risky? Yes. Whether we embrace it or not, our bodies will seek enjoyment one way or another. If we deny ourselves too much, the enjoyment we find may end up being food.
Here are ten ideas for enjoyable distractions:
- Read any enjoyable book or magazine. The key word is enjoyable – think guilty pleasures. Celebrity mags? Yup. Romance novels? You got it. Whatever floats your boat.
- Listen to music. Music lights up the brain like nothing else. It’s stimulating, healthy, and fun. But forget the health benefits – listen solely because it feels good. I put off upgrading my music situation forever, but just finally got ‘er done, and it feels great to reconnect with music again.
- Listen to a podcast. Just like music, there’s tons of podcast options. Choose one that feels like an indulgence and dive in.
- Find something funny. It might be a comedy routine on YouTube, a silly book, or making plans to go to an actual comedy show. I have this silly little book – Deep Thoughts: Inspiration for the Uninspired by Jack Handey. I saw it in a skit many years ago on Saturday Night Live, and it gives me a giggle every now and then.
- Spend quality time with your pet. Playtime, walks, and training can all be rewarding and feel good.
- Color. Coloring books have come back in a big way in the past few years. Makes me want to buy one of those ginormous boxes of crayons that I loved back in the day.
- Engage in an enjoyable hobby. Is there anything you would love to do but feel guilty spending the time? Maybe gardening or photography? Knitting or birdwatching? Drawing, painting, pottery or other crafts? Collecting of some sort? Be generous with yourself.
- Treat yourself to something that has nothing to do with food – for example, a mani/pedi, new shoes, a workout gadget.
- Do some creative YouTubing. I’m partial to YouTube, so I put it as its own category because it’s so diverse. Sometimes I’ll get lost in celebrity interviews, music videos, or silly little tips like how to fold fitted sheets. I’ve never once watched Beyonce’s Love on Top video and not felt at least a little boost.
- Enjoy entertainment in any form that energizes you. This one is tricky, because mindless tv watching actually consumes energy and can trigger cravings for some people. But maybe you love movies or really dig a Netflix session. If so, more power to you.
When we’re about to devour a pint of ice cream, there’s pretty much zero likelihood we’ll say y’know, instead of ice cream, I could totally sit on the couch and do a Mountain Meditation instead. Ahhh, much better!
I get it. Even so, a meditation practice can be a very effective way to develop a stronger, more perceptive and resilient brain.
Stronger and more resilient = less emotional eating.
Here’s the catch: just as we cannot add strength in a single workout, or maybe even several, we cannot get a strong mind with one meditation session. That’s why it’s a *practice* – it takes time.
So yeah, if we want to be able to use meditation to comfort ourselves without food, it might not be immediately helpful.
Think of it as a “Mental Yoga” class. Over time, we can use time-tested exercises to train our minds to be stronger and more flexible, day by day. For free, anytime and anywhere.
There are a gazillion ways to meditate. Some are very simple, like a walking meditation, and others rely on certain imagery. All are about making our minds stronger and more flexible.
The easiest way to meditate is to simply pick something to observe and then sit with it for any period of time.
For example, sit quietly for any amount of time in any location. Use all of your senses to note what’s around you – sounds, smells, light, temperature, the feeling of whatever you’re resting on (e.g., chair, floor), etc.
Is there a noisy siren or something that’s similarly annoying? Excellent. Practice noticing it without wishing it would go away.
Here’s a list of all the meditation exercises I thought of. Google any that seem interesting, and set aside anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes a day to experiment.
- Watch your breath. Simply sit and notice your breath, feeling your upper body rise and fall without trying to change anything.
- Watch your thoughts. Think of your thoughts as a river and watch them flow by. You’ll get good at recognizing them over time – ah, there’s worry! There’s doubt! And sometimes even amused.
- Watch your surroundings. Sit quietly and simply observe any sounds, smells, light, temperature, the feeling of a chair you’re sitting on etc. When the mind wanders, simply bring it back to the present.
- Walking meditation. Walking meditation is simply watching your breath, thoughts, or surroundings, but while taking a walk.
- Body scan meditation. Lie or sit down and starting with your feet, notice any feeling (pressure, warmth, tingling, etc.) you have. Scan up your body until you reach your head.
- Mountain meditation. Imagine a beautiful mountain. Now picture all the changes it sees – people, animals, weather – throughout the years and seasons. Notice how it remains steady through it all.
- Lake meditation. Similar to the mountain meditation, imagine a beautiful lake. Picture the way it reflects the light above and reacts in kind to anything that touches it, like the wind or a stone.
- 4-7-8 breathing. I love this one and have been doing it a lot lately. Inhale through your nose to a count of four; hold your breath quietly to a count of seven; exhale through your mouth with a satisfying “whoosh” to a count of eight.
- Singing or chanting meditation. Repeat a sound or chant (a good one is “Sa-Ta-Na-Ma”), with or without corresponding hand motions.
- Loving kindness. Repeat a phrase, like “may you be happy, may you be free from pain, may you live with ease.” Wish it first for yourself, then a loved one, then a friend, then a neutral person (like someone at work or in a store), then for all people.
Last but certainly not least, there’s social connections. Connections of all kinds, large and small, have emerged as a key piece of the health puzzle. Humans are social creatures, and a sense of connection to others is actually important not only for happiness, but good health. Feeling isolated is actually unhealthy.
I put this last because relaxation and other techniques have been more impactful for me. For some, though, a social angle could be the go-to strategy.
Here are ten ideas for nurturing social connections. The first five are usually available upon a moment’s notice, which can be important. The latter ones require some advance planning.
- Talk with a family member or close friend about anything. Any kind of chat will do, so long as both participants are fully present.
- Play a fun game with a companion. My daughter and I enjoy playing “Two Truths and a Lie,” where you share two things that really happened and one that didn’t, and the other person has to guess which one is not true.
- Connect with others at work. Ask someone at work a friendly question about their personal lives, like a favorite vacation or hobby.
- Spend quality time with a pet. I make an effort to spend quality time with my Shiba, Kenzie, by playing catch, training, walking, or even just brushing her.
- Be kind to strangers. Go to any public place, like a park or a store, and make a point to say hello and/or make small talk with others. Even such seemingly small connections can provide a sense of well-being.
- Volunteer. Find a cause you care about and make time for it. There’s incredible synergy in volunteering because everyone involved benefits.
- Get a personal trainer. Working with a personal trainer is not just about the workout – a great trainer can be an important part of your support network. It doesn’t matter how much you know – you can always learn more. I’ve worked with several trainers and have always learned something from each one.
- Treat yourself to a new experience. Is there an outing you’ve been wanting to try? Maybe a visit to an art museum or a botanical garden? Go there either with a friend, or go by yourself and make a point to be warm to others you see.
- Learn something new. Are there classes you’d like to take but just don’t seem to have the time? Making time for a pottery or French class is way better than fighting the craving demons, isn’t it? If we don’t make time for ourselves, our bodies will do it for us.
- Let yourself be pampered. Enjoy a personal-care activity where someone else pampers you, like a mani-pedi, massage, or a blow out. Again, it may not seem “social,” but it is a very real connection and can enhance well-being, especially if it’s a place you go regularly.
So there you have it – fifty ways to navigate emotions without turning to food. It’s a lot of detail, I know, but if you look closely, there are a few common themes:
- Make time for pleasure and meaning – if you don’t, your body will probably find a way without you.
- Be generous with yourself.
- Be patient with yourself, and never give up hope.
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