If you reach for junk food or sweets or eat far past fullness when you’re stressed or upset, you’re not alone. Finding comfort in food is very common.
“When you’re under a lot of stress, your brain is looking for a way to soothe itself, and for many people, turning to food is a way to do that,” says Christine M. Peat, PhD, an expert in eating disorders at UNC Medical Center.
Emotional eating is a term for using food to meet emotional needs rather than to curb hunger. It can lead to feelings of physical distress from eating too much and unwanted weight gain. It also tends to be a short-term solution to more persistent emotions and problems.
Dr. Peat answers common questions about emotional eating and how to find ways to cope with big emotions in a more sustainable way.
What is the connection between our mental health and what we think about our bodies?
For most people, their relationship with their body is a part of who they are, how they think about themselves and how they self-conceptualize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I think it’s about how much importance that we give that in terms of our self-concept.
Sometimes it can be really problematic if you think about your weight or your shape as the most important thing about you. And sometimes that can lead you into really problematic relationships with food and problematic relationships with your body if you’re unhappy with your weight or shape.
Whereas if you were able to see your body as this incredible thing that allows you to do so many different things in your life, it can give you more of an appreciation for what your body can do. For example, it’s this vehicle that you live in that allows you to play with your kids, to hike and engage in all your favorite activities.
How can trauma lead to weight gain?
One of the things we know both clinically and with research is that for people that come to weight management clinics or present for bariatric surgery, there’s a high prevalence of those individuals having had some kind of traumatic experience—whether it’s physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse—especially if it happened in childhood.
When abuse happens in the formative years, they’re looking for a safe harbor—a way to manage some really scary, really big emotions in the wake of trauma. When you’re very young, sometimes you learn to turn to food, and you learn that food is always going to feel comforting and there for you. It’s consistent, whereas people aren’t predictable, and people can be scary.
We have some patients that tell us, “It was a way for me to protect myself. So if I gained a certain amount of weight, then maybe my body would no longer be desirable.” Or “If my body shape changed in some way, maybe that would somehow physically protect me from whatever abuse that I was experiencing.”
On the opposite side of the coin, we know that people who struggle with eating disorders (that involve restricting food, such as anorexia nervosa) also have really high prevalence of some kind of trauma history.
Why do some people respond to stress by gaining weight, while others lose it?
There’s a stress hormone called cortisol. When you have an accumulation of cortisol in your system, it can leave you vulnerable to weight gain.
We have seen higher amounts of cortisol in the bloodstream of people who are living under chronic stress and experiencing an increase in their weight.
But there’s also a behavioral aspect. What I often hear from folks is, “When I’m stressed, I want to eat everything in sight. It makes me feel better.” Or “It’s a way for me to be mindless. It’s a way for me to take my mind off my worries, whatever it might be, to kind of numb out.”
Then there is a group of people who say, “When I get stressed, I completely lose my appetite. I just don’t want to eat at all. It’s not something that’s a priority for me.”
I don’t know that we necessarily have the science to help us predict who’s going to fall into which one of those categories, but it does seem like a lot of folks kind of fall into one of those two groups.
What mental health options are available to those who struggle with emotional eating?
I recommend that if you feel like you’re placing too much importance on your weight or your shape or you feel like your relationship with food is taking up too much real estate in your mind, that might be a sign that you want to reach out to a mental health professional and talk about some other ways to build coping strategies around how to manage some of those negative feelings that are coming up.
Maybe even talk about how you arrived where you did, because working with a therapist can really help address some of the underlying issues that may have prompted this challenging relationship with food. For example, sometimes people have unaddressed trauma that they need to work on with a therapist. Or sometimes people have a ton of very reasonable stressors in their lives that have just accumulated over the years, and now they have an unaddressed anxiety disorder or depression.
Sometimes getting good mental health help around these things can have a halo effect—when we’re addressing some of those underlying issues, we might see improvement in other areas, such as your relationship with food.
Need help for an eating disorder for yourself or a loved one? Contact the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at (984) 974-3834.
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