The Science of Mindful Eating: Strategies to Combat Emotional Eating

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Have you ever turned to food for comfort during difficult times? Do you find that when you’re feeling angry, sad, or even bored, your natural reaction is to seek your favorite foods? You’re not alone! Emotions can often trick you into eating – even if you aren’t feeling truly hungry. Common triggers include work-related stress, finances, relationship difficulties, illness, or social situations like parties and holidays.

While emotional eating might feel like an “escape” from the distressing feelings or stressors at hand, this does not solve the problem. Instead, you’re left with two problems: the initial situation which prompted the difficult emotions and second, the negative feelings after an episode of emotional eating (e.g. anxiety, guilt, etc.). In addition, emotional eating can affect one’s food choices by choosing less nutrient-dense options, the quantity of food consumed, and the rate at which someone eats. Since emotional eating often occurs in the absence of hunger, this could lead to overeating as well.

Combating Emotional Eating

So, what are some strategies to cope with negative emotions in a healthy way? Here are five skills to help combat emotional eating, regulate difficult emotions, and promote relaxation:     

CHEAR's Techniques to Combat Emotional Eating

1.     Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

  • Apply muscle tension to specific parts of the body (e.g. calves, biceps, fists, etc.)
  • Take deep breaths as you tense these muscles as hard as you can, holding for 5 seconds
  • Release the tension while exhaling
  • Take note of how loose and relaxed your muscles feel for at least 10-15 seconds
  • Repeat with the next part of your body!

Tip: Use this skill when you notice any physiological changes or responses to distressing emotions, such as muscle tightness or shallow breathing.

2.     Diaphragmatic Breathing

  • Place your left hand on your stomach and right hand on your chest
  • Breathe in deeply for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  • Exhale fully for 8 seconds
  • Hold for an addition 4 seconds, then repeat!

Tip: Take note of how you feel before and after engaging in this breathing exercise. Do you feel calmer? That your emotions are more manageable?

3.     Self-Soothe

  • Engage in various activities, targeting the five senses, to ground yourself during times of emotional dysregulation. For example, if you feel stressed about an upcoming deadline, opt for a mindful walk or listen to your favorite song instead of using food to cope.
  • Other forms of self-soothing include: lighting a candle, taking a bubble bath, petting a dog or cat, going window shopping, listening to relaxing music, or putting a cold compress on your forehead.

4.     5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

  • When emotions feel particularly heightened, try this technique to bring you back to the present: identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing that you can taste.
  • This is a great skill that can be used at any time, whether you’re at home, work, school, or out with friends.

5.     Distraction

  • If you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions, engage in activities that can temporarily take your mind off of the situation and alleviate the distressing emotions.
  • Distraction can take many forms, such as calling a friend, organizing your closet, going on a drive, listening to a podcast, starting a new book, or volunteering somewhere.
  • Play around with different forms of distraction and see what works for you!

Take A Deeper Look At These Techniques

In the previous section, we briefly touched upon some effective strategies to combat emotional eating, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), Diaphragmatic Breathing, Self-Soothing techniques, the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique, and Distraction. Now, let’s dive deeper into each of these methods to understand how they work and why they are so beneficial in managing emotional eating. Gaining a deeper insight into these strategies will empower you to take control of your emotional eating habits and embark on a journey towards healthier emotional and physical well-being.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 20th century. It is designed to reduce stress and anxiety through a simple, systematic procedure involving tensing and relaxing various muscle groups throughout the body. The process helps in recognizing the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, providing a deeper understanding of physical relaxation.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Reducing Stress

How PMR Works:

  1. Tensing and Relaxing Muscles: PMR involves systematically tensing specific muscle groups in the body, holding that tension, and then releasing it. This is done in a sequence, often starting from the toes and moving upwards towards the head, although it can be done in any order.
  2. Awareness of Tension and Relaxation: By alternately tensing and relaxing muscles, you become more aware of physical sensations, particularly the contrast between tension and relaxation. This heightened awareness can help in recognizing and managing the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
  3. Breathing: Proper breathing often accompanies PMR. Deep, controlled breaths help enhance relaxation and reduce stress.

Why PMR is Helpful in Combating Emotional Eating:

Stress Reduction: Since emotional eating is often triggered by stress, anxiety, or negative emotions, PMR’s ability to reduce stress directly addresses stress response, one of the root causes of emotional eating.

Increased Body Awareness: PMR increases your awareness of bodily sensations, which can help in distinguishing between actual hunger and emotional hunger. This awareness is crucial in preventing mindless eating.

Distraction and Focus: Engaging in PMR requires focus and attention, which can serve as a distraction from the urge to eat due to emotions. It shifts your attention from the emotional distress to the physical act of relaxing your muscles.

Coping Mechanism: PMR can be a healthier coping mechanism for dealing with negative emotions compared to turning to food. By practicing PMR, you can develop a go-to strategy that is beneficial for both mental and physical health.

Improved Mood and Mental State: The relaxation achieved through PMR can improve overall mood and mental state, reducing the likelihood of seeking comfort in food due to emotional reasons.

PMR is a practical and accessible tool that can be incorporated into a daily routine to help manage stress.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, often referred to as “deep breathing,” is a powerful technique used to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and improve overall physical and mental well-being. Here’s why someone might use diaphragmatic breathing:

Diaphragmatic Breathing for Blood Pressure and Stress Relief

Stress Reduction: During periods of stress, breathing often becomes shallow and rapid, which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing helps counteract this by stimulating the body’s relaxation response, leading to a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure.

Improved Oxygen Exchange: This form of breathing allows for more efficient oxygen exchange. By engaging the diaphragm fully, more air is drawn into the lungs, which improves the oxygenation of blood and the removal of carbon dioxide. This can lead to better energy levels and improved physical performance.

Emotional Regulation: The practice of diaphragmatic breathing can help regulate emotions. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system), which helps calm the body and mind, making it easier to manage emotional states.

Mindfulness and Focus: Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing requires focus and attention, which can enhance mindfulness. This helps in redirecting attention away from stressors or negative thoughts and towards the present moment.

Physical Health Benefits: Regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing can also contribute to improved overall health. It can aid in lowering blood pressure, reducing the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), improving core muscle stability, and even helping with chronic pain management.

Combating Emotional Eating: Specifically in the context of emotional eating, diaphragmatic breathing can be a valuable tool. By reducing stress and anxiety, it can help prevent the emotional triggers that often lead to seeking comfort in food. When practiced regularly, it can become a healthy coping mechanism to replace the habit of emotional eating.

Diaphragmatic breathing is a versatile and powerful technique that serves as a valuable tool in stress management, emotional regulation, and overall well-being, making it particularly effective in addressing habits like emotional eating.

Self Soothing

Self-soothing is an essential skill for emotional regulation and well-being. It involves engaging in activities or practices that calm and comfort oneself, especially during times of stress or emotional distress. The importance of self-soothing and finding the right type for you can be understood through several key points:

Self-Soothing Techniques for Anxiety and Mental Health

Emotional Regulation: Self-soothing techniques help in managing intense emotions like anxiety, sadness, fear or anger. By engaging in self-soothing activities, individuals can bring themselves back to a state of equilibrium, making emotions feel more manageable.

Reduction of Reliance on Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Without effective self-soothing strategies, people might turn to unhealthy behaviors like emotional eating, substance abuse, or other harmful practices to cope with negative emotions. Finding healthier ways to self-soothe can reduce the reliance on these detrimental habits.

Promotes Mental Health: Regularly practicing self-soothing can contribute positively to mental health. It helps in building resilience against chronic stress and can be a proactive strategy in maintaining emotional well-being.

Personalization is Key: Not all self-soothing techniques work equally well for everyone. It’s important to explore different methods to find what works best for you. This could be listening to music, taking a bath, engaging in a hobby, or practicing mindfulness. The effectiveness of self-soothing is greatly enhanced when the activity genuinely resonates with the individual’s preferences and needs.

Improves Self-awareness: Discovering and applying self-soothing techniques requires a level of self-awareness. It involves recognizing when you are becoming emotionally overwhelmed and understanding what kind of self-care and support you need at that moment.

Enhances Autonomy in Emotional Management: By having a set of self-soothing techniques, individuals empower themselves to manage their emotional states independently. This autonomy is crucial for building confidence and a sense of control over one’s emotional life.

Better Relationships: When individuals can effectively self-soothe, they are less likely to project their emotional distress onto others. This can lead to healthier, more stable relationships, as it reduces the likelihood of emotional dependency on others for comfort.

Long-term Benefits: Over time, the regular practice of self-soothing can lead to long-term improvements in emotional health and well-being. It can also enhance one’s ability to cope with future stressors more effectively.

Self-soothing is a vital skill for emotional health. It allows for the effective management of stress and negative emotions, reducing the need for unhealthy coping mechanisms. Finding the right self-soothing technique that works for you is a personalized journey and an investment in your long-term emotional well-being.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique is a mindfulness exercise used to help anchor individuals in the present moment, particularly during times of high anxiety or stress. It’s especially useful for those who experience overwhelming emotions or dissociation. Here’s how it works and its relation to combating emotional eating:

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique for Stressful Situations

How the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique Works:

  1. Identify 5 Things You Can See: Look around you and acknowledge five things that you can see. These could be everyday objects like a chair, a book, a cup, etc.
  2. Acknowledge 4 Things You Can Touch: Notice and name four things that you can feel or touch. It could be the texture of your clothing, the feel of the chair you are sitting on, the sensation of air on your skin, etc.
  3. Recognize 3 Things You Can Hear: Listen for and identify three sounds. It could be the sound of traffic outside, the hum of a refrigerator, or birds chirping.
  4. Notice 2 Things You Can Smell: Bring attention to two things you can smell. If you can’t immediately smell anything, think of your two favorite smells or move to a place where you can smell something (like a kitchen).
  5. Acknowledge 1 Thing You Can Taste: Focus on one thing you can taste at the moment. This could be the lingering taste of a meal, a drink, or even just the taste of your mouth.

Relation to Combating Emotional Eating:

Interrupts the Automatic Response: Emotional eating often occurs as an automatic response to stress or negative emotions. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique interrupts this automatic process by shifting your focus to your immediate environment and sensory experiences.

Brings Awareness to the Present: By engaging in this exercise, you become more aware of the present moment, which can help you recognize if you’re truly hungry or just eating in response to emotions.

Reduces Stress and Anxiety: This grounding technique can help lower stress and anxiety levels, which are often precursors to emotional eating. By managing these emotional states, the urge to eat for comfort may diminish.

Encourages Mindful Eating: The mindfulness aspect of this technique can be extended to eating habits. It encourages being present and conscious about food choices and eating behaviors, reducing the likelihood of mindless or emotional eating.

Provides a Non-food Coping Mechanism: By using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, you develop a coping mechanism that doesn’t involve food. This can be a healthier alternative to turning to food for emotional comfort.

Improves Emotional Regulation Skills: Regular practice of this technique can enhance overall emotional regulation skills. Better emotional regulation can lead to more controlled and mindful eating habits over time.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique is a useful tool in managing stress and anxiety, and by extension, can be very effective in combating emotional eating. It helps in developing mindfulness and emotional awareness, which are key to understanding and changing emotional eating behaviors.

Distraction

Distraction is a significant tool in combating emotional eating because it serves to shift your focus away from the urge to eat as a response to emotions. Emotional eating often occurs as an automatic response to negative emotions such as stress, boredom, sadness, or anxiety. Using distraction techniques can interrupt this cycle by providing an alternative way to cope. Here’s why distraction is important:

Effective Distraction Methods to Prevent Emotional Eating

Breaking the Cycle: Emotional eating can become a habitual response to certain emotional states. Engaging in a distraction can break this automatic cycle, giving you time to assess whether your hunger is physical or emotional.

Reduces Immediate Urge: Distraction provides a temporary break from the emotional triggers that lead to eating. By focusing on a different activity, the immediacy and intensity of the urge to eat can diminish.

Alternative Coping Mechanism: Distraction techniques offer an alternative coping mechanism that doesn’t involve food. Activities such as reading, walking, engaging in a hobby, or talking to a friend can be healthier ways to relax and deal with emotions.

Increases Mindfulness: Engaging in a distracting activity can increase mindfulness and present moment awareness, making you more conscious of your eating habits and choices.

Provides Time for Emotional Processing: Distraction can provide a pause, allowing time for the emotional wave to pass. Often, if given a little time, the intensity of the emotion and the associated urge to eat will lessen.

Enhances Self-Control: Regularly practicing distraction as a response to emotional cues can strengthen self-control. Over time, this can lead to more effective management of emotional eating habits.

Promotes Positive Reinforcement: Engaging in a pleasurable or productive distraction can offer a sense of accomplishment or enjoyment, which can be positively reinforcing. This positive feeling can gradually replace the temporary comfort gained from eating.

Stress Reduction: Many distraction techniques, especially those involving physical activity or relaxation practices, can actively reduce stress and anxiety levels, thereby addressing one of the key triggers of emotional eating.

Distraction is a valuable tool in the fight against emotional eating because it offers a way to step back from immediate emotional impulses, provides an alternative coping mechanism, and helps in developing healthier habits and responses over time.

Conclusion

The next time you find yourself grappling with feelings of sadness, anger, stress, or overwhelm, and the familiar urge to turn to food for comfort arises, remember that you have a set of effective tools at your disposal. Instead of succumbing to emotional eating, try engaging in one of the transformative techniques we’ve discussed: Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Diaphragmatic Breathing, Self-Soothing, the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique, or Distraction. These methods are not merely alternatives to emotional eating; they are pathways to a more mindful and emotionally balanced lifestyle.

Remember that you’re not alone on this journey. If you’re seeking further guidance or support in managing emotional eating or improving your relationship with food, the Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR) based in San Diego and La Jolla is here to help. Our team of experts can provide you with additional resources, personalized strategies, and the support you need to navigate these challenges. Don’t hesitate to reach out to CHEAR to learn more about how we can assist you in cultivating a healthier, more empowered life. Remember, taking the first step towards change is often the most crucial part. We’re here to take that step with you.