Why You Eat When You’re Sad

This is an extension of the post I did a few days ago called How to Stop Emotional Eating – For Good. Emotional eating can take many forms, but most people can probably agree that it is when you are sad that the cravings for cookies and ice cream start calling. I wanted to do a more in depth exploration of why this happens, and of course, ways to help overcome it.

Stress.

The number one reason we will eat is due to the stress that negative emotions cause us, especially sadness. Most times, stress goes hand in hand with depression and can either be a symptom or a factor in being sad. When we’re stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which creates cravings for unhealthy foods and stores these extra calories in the belly, the visceral fat region which is a danger zone for heart attacks. Some people also feel the need to soothe their oral fixation caused by anxiety or any other emotion, which can be soothed by the repetitive motion of picking up handfuls of food into the mouth.

So how to reduce stress? There’s plenty of techniques, but here’s just a few to get you started:

  • Meditation – it sounds corny, but it really does work. Search around for some meditation videos on YouTube like this one or this one, and lay down face up (or however you’re most comfortable) with arms down your side and preferably headphones on. Listen to the music, or the music with guided meditation (helps with imagery). A good meditation session will leave you less stressed and relaxed like you’ve just woken for a nap.
  • Nap – if the meditation isn’t your thing, then you can take an actual nap. It doesn’t quite solve anything, but it does help you to sleep on some hard decisions.
  • Deep breathing – breathe deeply through your nose for about 5 seconds, hold for just a sec, and slowly release through your mouth for about 5-10 seconds. Do this for a couple of minutes, especially at moments of high stress, and see how you feel.
  • Yoga – yoga is another thing that’s not for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll love it. You can also do some basic stretching (not yoga-y) while using the deep breathing technique to really reap the benefits. You can do a quick pose when you’re feeling stressed at the office, or you can do it every time you wake up (and do the Sun Salutation).

Numb or Distract Ourselves.

Going back to the pain/pleasure principles discussed in the How to Stop Emotional Eating – For Good article, people don’t like to feel pain and will instinctively find any way to stop pain and increase pleasure. This often includes distracting ourselves from difficult news or emotions. Food is a way to distract ourselves from the pain and to induce pleasure with the chemicals and sugars found in foods. The repetitive act of eating is soothing, as well as the sensations of food which cut off our thoughts.

Habits/Learned Associations, such as from Childhood.

Most moms can admit to using an ice cream cone as a pick-me-up for their children when they get a minor injury, such as falling off a bike. However, if used enough times, the child can learn to associate good feelings with food. Food is seen as the way to make the pain go away, or to stop crying. Maybe moms should start using carrots instead of cupcakes, and the world will be a better place 🙂 Ahh, but even though this may be an ingrained response from childhood, it is fairly simple to unlearn the association. One way is fear – imagine spiders and other gross things on your favorite junk food item or literally throw dirt on your junk food item before you’re about to eat it (a waste of food yes, but for an important point). Or as soon as you feel a craving for that specific treat, such as ice cream, pinch your wrist very hard. Soon you will learn to associate the junk food with pain.

As an example: One time I spent far too much time on Youtube watching gross videos about decaying animals, just for the curiosity of how flies and maggots play the role in the circle of life. I had also watched a fascinating time lapse of all kinds of fruit decaying and molding in a bowl. Unfortunately, the next day my sister gave me a cherry to eat, and I literally could not stomach the thought of eating that cherry. It disgusted me to look at the fruit and be reminded of that video. So it can be done. Next time I’ll try to find something about ice cream.

Ignoring the Larger Problem(s).

This is related to numbing/distraction, but usually the problem is far worse than normal thoughts throughout the day. Perhaps you have a dark secret that even yourself cannot bear to think about – do you have a sudden urge to eat potato chips or the like? Some people hide their disparity about their failing marriages or their cheating husbands by gorging on food at night because they can no longer cry about it, or the food helps them ignore the problem. This is when it is time to see a professional, to uproot these issues. Being raped or molested is another huge reason girls will overeat, as a way to provide a buffer so that they won’t be noticed by predators. Short of seeing a therapist, which is highly recommended (especially if you’re eating to cover up feelings about serious depression or suicidal/harmful thoughts), you can try these things:

  • Journal! Write it out, and tackle your feelings head on. Write a story about it, in third person if you must, and share it with someone. Chances are there are a lot of people who can relate, too. Sharing makes it easier to go through the experience.
  • Pick up a creative hobby to do instead of eating. Can’t write or talk about it? Try drawing or painting. You don’t have to be good at it, just do it for the therapy.
  • Try CBT therapy on your own. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a technique that many therapists are skilled in. You can try a simplified version by yourself, if you’d like: CBT’s goal is to find out the reasoning behind your behaviors and to try to alter your thinking patterns and inspire better behaviors. For example, your undesired behavior is that you eat too much, and your cognitive functioning is that you eat because you’re sad. Write out why you do this, and find the real problems. If you’re crying, or it feels hard, then you’ve found the real reasons. Once you’ve pin-pointed the thoughts that are making you do this behavior, then it’s time to find out how to change those thoughts and therefore your behavior. Whenever you think a negative thought, change it into a positive. Work on your self esteem. Change your surroundings so that you can change your problem. And then you can also consciously work on changing your behavior. The two are related, so you’ll start seeing improvement both ways. It’s usually a long, difficult and drawn out process – which is why professional help is recommended. I’ll write a post more about CBT later, however.
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3 thoughts on “Why You Eat When You’re Sad

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