Understanding Emotional Eating Causes: Unveiling the Hidden Causes Behind Your Food Cravings

If you're wondering about emotional eating causes and how they impact your daily life, you're in the right place. These may be subtle, complex, and often misunderstood, but gaining awareness can be your greatest tool in achieving a healthier relationship with food. This article will shine a light not just on what emotional eating is, but more importantly, what it is not: it's not about food, but an unfavorable coping strategy born out of hidden triggers. You'll learn that addressing these root causes can be the most effective way onward, all from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Table of Contents

Unraveling the Truth behind Emotional Eating Causes: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Unearthing the reality, it becomes visible that the triggers driving emotional eating transcend beyond mere hunger or longing for those mouth-watering cookies. More accurately, emotional eating causes are rooted in your inner emotions and experiences. It's an attempt, not only to satiate an unfilled stomach, but to plug the voids that food simply can't help with.  

Remember, you're not alone. This is a common coping mechanism employed by both women and men to grapple with their genuine feelings. 

Let's dive into the basics, why do emotions play a key role in emotional eating? Remember that this is not about food; rather, it's about how your feelings make you turn to food as a comfort zone. You tend to eat more, especially comfort food or junk food, during times of stress, sadness, anger, or even boredom. It's like an attempt to fill an emotional void with food. 

How Emotions Play a Role in Emotional Eating

Stress as an Instigator

Stress, both physical and emotional, tends to be a leading instigator in emotional eating. When you're stressed out, your body produces higher levels of the hormone cortisol. This hormone triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. 

But it's also crucial to remember, emotional eating is not a sign of weakness. It's simply a coping mechanism.

Unexpressed Emotions as Underlying Culprits

Often, however, the biggest culprits are unexpressed feelings – those emotions you stifle or ignore. It could be the annoyance you felt at a friend's betrayal, the anger from a boss's criticism, or the sadness of feeling lonely. We often tend to discount or underestimate how deeply these are affecting us, leading us to eat attempts to numb those feelings. 

By recognizing these emotions, acknowledging them, and addressing them directly, you can break the cycle of emotional eating. It's not an overnight process, but recognizing that the problem is not about food but about emotions is a significant step forward to understanding emotional eating causes and how to break the cycle. 

Breaking the Cycle

The road to breaking the emotional eating cycle can be daunting, but remember, it's all about taking baby steps. It's about learning new coping skills, recognizing triggers, managing stress differently, and forming a healthier relationship with food

Most importantly, it's a journey of self-discovery, self-growth, and gaining emotional intelligence. And remember, you're not alone on this journey. It's possible to overcome emotional eating and, trust me, it's nothing short of empowering.

Connecting Emotion and Hunger: The Hungry Heart

Having trouble differentiating between physical and emotional hunger? We've all been there! The thing to understand is that these two types of hunger are extremely different, but can sometimes coexist. Do not worry, let's break it down. 

Physical hunger is about survival. You'll experience certain sensations in your body, such as hunger pangs, a growling stomach, or low energy. This type of hunger can be satiated – you feel nourished after a meal and are able to move on. 

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is about filling a void in your heart. Eating in response to this type of hunger rarely satisfies, with feelings of guilt and regret often succeeding the act of eating. Sound


The Art of Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is a practice that can aid in disconnecting emotion from food, fostering a healthier relationship with eating. Intrigued? Good! 

Have you ever found yourself in front of the fridge, staring blankly, reaching for that leftover pizza not because you're actually hungry – but because you're upset, or stressed? Well, you're not alone. This is exactly where the practice of mindful eating comes in. Let's dive into it!  

So, what exactly does ‘mindful eating' mean? A good definition might be: Eating with intention and attention. This means focusing on the foods you are eating, the way those foods engage your senses, how they make you feel etc. It's about recognising the difference between physical hunger – the body's way of telling us it needs fuel, and emotional hunger, which could be rooted in far deeper, often unexplored emotions.  

A Practicable Approach to Mindful Eating

Okay, let's get practical. How do you actually practice mindful eating? Here are a few beginner tips: 

First and foremost, it's essential to cultivate a general awareness of your emotions, triggers, and reactions. Understand that it's an on-going process. It's less about attaining perfection and more about acknowledging, exploring, and managing what's happening inside you. So, where do you begin? 

Start with the very act of eating:

Can you remember the last time you had a meal? Close your eyes, take a step back, and think about it. Better yet, think about the most recent time you found yourself emotionally eating. You might see a vivid picture: the texture of your comfort food, the smell wafting in the air, your fingers wrapped around a fork, spoon, or perhaps a cookie. Do you recall the emotions seeping in, shaping your experience? Most likely you don’t, because you weren’t eating – you were feeding. 

The Different Between Eating and Feeding

Feeding is a mechanical act. It's consuming food, not because you're hungry or because you'll enjoy it, but because you are trying to fill a void. A void that has little to do with your stomach and a lot to do with your emotions. It's the act of using food as an emotional band-aid. When we “feed”, we bypass the purpose of mindful eating, we skip the joy, the satisfaction, and the connection food brings. We miss the essentials. 

Eating: An Act of Nourishment & Enjoyment

On the other hand, eating is an act of nourishment. It's about more than just filling up your stomach – it's about taking pleasure in your food and acknowledging its role in your health and well-being. Eating should not be a mindless act, devoured in the void of your emotions. The delicious crunch of a fresh apple, the delightful burst of flavor in a piece of dark chocolate – these are experiences to be savored, not gulped down in a hurricane of emotions. 

Emotional Eating: A Misguided Coping Mechanism

Let’s be clear here. Emotional eating is not about the food. Rather, it’s about using food as a coping mechanism for your emotions. It's a way to distract and soothe yourself from the pain you're feeling. But food is a temporary solution. Once you finish that last cookie or swallow the last spoonful of ice cream, the emotions are still there, lurking just below the surface. 

Underlying Reasons: Why Do We Resort to Emotional Eating?

Now the question arises – why do we resort to emotional eating? Often, the reasons are complex and layered. Maybe it’s an unresolved traumatic event from your past. Perhaps it's the daily stressors such as a demanding job or challenging relationships. Or it might be unexpressed emotions, pent up feelings that you’ve been bottling up for years. Understanding these hidden triggers is the key to addressing and overcoming emotional eating. It's about dealing with the root of the problem, as opposed to just the


Identifying Emotional Triggers: The First Step to Healing

Imagine this: You're having a stressful day at work – your clients are being difficult, your inbox is overflowing, and you have a presentation due tomorrow that you’re not ready for. By the end of the day, you're a bundle of nerves. Emotional eating isn't far then, right? But underlying that seemingly harmless binge eating session is your emotional trigger, which in this case, is stress from work. Understanding this critically helps in sorting out the root cause of your emotional eating. 

Different emotional triggers might be at play for different people. It’s not just stress or anxiety; it could be loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. It’s a shadow boxing situation, in which you’re fighting with invisible opponents – your emotional triggers. 

Healing Requires Delving Deep into your Psyche

Conquering your emotional triggers and thereby, your emotional eating habit, demands a deep dive into your mind. It might seem daunting at first and that’s perfectly okay. The journey towards self-healing is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and it requires taking one step at a time. 

Psychoanalysis can act as a guiding light in this journey. It delves into your past, your deep-seated fears, your unresolved emotions, and gradually pushes you towards self-awareness, and ultimately, healing. Remember, it's not about judging yourself or feeling guilty; it's about understanding and acceptance. 

Reclaim Control: Redirecting Negative Emotions

Another important aspect of breaking free from the clutches of emotional eating is redirecting your negative emotions. It's about accepting that it's okay to feel stressed or angry, and gradually learning how to channel these feelings constructively. 

For instance, the next time you’re feeling stressed out, instead of reaching out for that bag of chips, why not try taking a short walk? Or how about practicing mindful breathing or a short yoga session? You’d be surprised at how much relief these small steps can offer, and in turn, prevent the emotional eating cycle. 

Remember, emotional eating is a symptom, not your identity. By understanding and addressing underlying emotional triggers, psychoanalytically, you’re paving your way towards healthier coping mechanisms and a happier, healthier you.

A Closer Look at Your Emotional Landscape

Begin by taking a closer look at your emotional landscape. What feelings tend to trigger bouts of emotional eating? Do some emotions lead you more towards food than others? These emotions could be as obvious as stress or as elusive as boredom. The key here is to develop an acute sense of emotional awareness, i.e., mindfulness. 

Understanding Your Relationship with Food

Next, take an honest look at your relationship with food. Do you eat to suppress emotions or do you feed your feelings? Remember, there's a stark difference between the two. Food can be a source of joy and a medium for social connection. But when used as a means to distract or numb emotional pain, it can lead down the path of emotional eating. 

Relinquishing Shame and Self-Judgement

One of the difficult aspects of emotional eating is the shame and guilt that often accompanies it. But hear me when I say – you are not alone. Eating in response to emotions does not make you weak. Nor does it define your worth. It's essential to relinquish shame and practice self-compassion, as you work towards understanding your triggers and emotional eating causes and reshaping your relationship with food. 

Seeking Help: A Courageous Step Forward

The journey of overcoming emotional eating often requires more than willpower. It needs a supportive, understanding space where you can safely explore your emotions without judgement. Seeking help, whether that's from a psychotherapist or a supportive loved one, is a courageous step – it's an affirmation of your worthiness and a testament to your resilience. 

When you're prepared to seek help with emotional eating, you're saying to yourself: “I'm worth taking care of.” Embracing this mindset is pivotal in changing your relationship with food. It's an opportunity to cultivate self-compassion, and a chance to understand your emotions and their link to your eating habits

Finding the Right Support

Getting the right help is crucial when understanding emotional eating causes and grappling with emotional eating. Look for a professional who understands both nutritional needs and emotional health – someone who uses a holistic approach. Whether it's a psychotherapist, dietitian, or coach with a focus on eating disorders, getting the right help can make a significant difference in your recovery journey.


Putting the Pieces Together

The crossover of emotional health and nutritional needs can be complex, it's like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Often times, what you find is that the emotional eating is just the cover, and underneath are experiences and feelings that have remained unprocessed. A trained professional can offer the perspective and tools you need to put the pieces together and establish healthier coping strategies

Support Beyond Therapy

In addition to therapy, finding a support group where you can express your feelings and fears can be extraordinarily helpful. Knowing that you're not alone in your journey, but surrounded by others who are going through the same experiences can provide an invaluable sense of understanding and compassion. These groups often provide practical advice, emotional support, and a non-judgemental environment. 

Moving Forward with Hope

Remember, it's not just about controlling your relationship with food; it's about understanding and building a healthier relationship with your emotions. This journey isn't a quick trip; it requires patience, compassion, and above all, hope. And consequently, the feeling of liberation you'll achieve from the bonds of emotional eating will make the journey worthwhile.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here, we'll answer some of the most common questions asked about emotional eating, shedding light on what exactly it is and what often causes it from a psychoanalytic perspective. Let's delve into some of these questions and explore their related insights. Understanding emotional eating is the first key step toward navigating this journey, recognizing your triggers, and adapting healthier coping mechanisms. 

1. What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is a habit of using food to cope with your feelings, instead of to satisfy your hunger. It's a common reaction to a range of emotions, including stress, sadness, loneliness, and even boredom. Eating in response to emotions can become a vicious cycle, leading to a sense of guilt and shame that only exacerbates the initial feeling you were trying to avoid.

2. Are there any recommended books about binge eating? 

From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, this habit forms as an attempt to mask or alleviate emotional pain. Food becomes the “medicine” of sorts, a quick fix to help numb the emotional discomfort. But like any other medication, the dose wears off eventually, and the initial problem – the negative feeling – remains lurking in the shadows, ready to strike again. 

3. Is Emotional Eating the same as Binge Eating?

While emotional eating and binge eating share some similarities, they are not exactly the same. Binge eating is a form of emotional eating, but emotional eating does not necessarily involve binge eating. Emotional eating involves using food as a coping mechanism for emotional distress, while binge eating is characterized by consuming large quantities of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort. Both behaviors arise from complex emotional issues and are often interconnected, but the specificity of their behaviors differs slightly. 

4. Can Emotional Eating lead to weight gain?

Yes, it commonly does. Unchecked emotional eating often leads to an unhealthy increase in calorie intake, which can result in weight gain. However, it's important to remember that weight gain is not the main issue here, it's a byproduct. The real problem lies in the unresolved negative emotions that push someone into emotional eating. This is why when addressing emotional eating, our focus should be on understanding and handling these emotional triggers rather than solely targeting the weight issue. However, not everyone who struggles with binge eating gains weight. People who struggle with binge eating can be at a healthy weight. 

5. How can I stop Emotional Eating?

Stopping emotional eating is not about sheer willpower; it's about understanding your emotions and learning new ways to cope with them. As a psychoanalyst, I believe in developing a deeper understanding of our feelings and finding healthier ways to express and soothe them. Sometimes, when confronted with an onslaught of emotions, you may turn to food not because you're hungry, but because you're reacting to a need for emotional release or a coping method. 

Identifying Myriad Triggers

Identifying what causes emotional eating—what stressors or triggers entice you to use food as a way to distract yourself or numb emotional pain—is key. Are there certain feelings that often lead to bouts of overeating? You might notice that you binge eat when you're stressed out, bored, lonely, or upset. The key is to tune in and pay close attention to your emotions and behaviors. Once you create that awareness, the journey of transformation begins.

Being Curious and Finding Alternatives

From there, it's about being curious, not critical, and finding healthier ways to respond. Food is merely a short-term fix that distracts from the real issues at hand. Rather than swallowing those emotions with a tub of ice cream, it’s important to cultivate a new relationship with yourself. 

You have to identify what you’re feeling, learn new ways of expressing emotions and responding to yourself. You might also consider reaching out to a friend, joining a support group, or even scheduling a visit with a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. 

Binge eating is a way of distracting from difficult emotions. Commonly recommended alternative distractions such as taking a walk, reading a novel, or exercising usually don’t work because let’s face it, they’re not as effective a distraction as eating. And more importantly, they don’t change the way you emotionally feel.

Ultimately, the only alternative to emotional eating is to cultivate a new relationship with your emotions. Turning your inner critic into a friend, and responding to yourself with the same kindness and support you’d give those you love and care about, are two key ways to create change.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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