What To Do When You Are Great All Day But Mess Up At NightBy Jackie Wicks and Joshua Wayne
If you are struggling with emotional eating or mindless night snacking, it can be a very frustrating behavior to deal with. Just when you feel like you're starting to get some traction and get it under control, you have a stressful day at work (or a fight with your spouse or a weekend without any plans, or...) and you find yourself back at square one. This is frustrating for a number of reasons. First, nobody likes to feel out of control. When you're using food as a means to cope with problems in life, you know in the back of your head that you're not truly doing or being at your best. You know this isn't the way you want to handle things, but you don't have a better way to deal right now. This leads to feeling stuck and out of control- again, not a very good feeling.
Secondly, it often derails your weight loss efforts. You can have the best of intentions and be working hard to stay on track with your diet or exercise program, but then an emotional eating or snacking binge takes over and you feel like you just lost all that momentum. Not fun, and very frustrating!
So is there a way out of this vicious cycle? The answer is yes, and though it may take a bit of effort you can undoubtedly get there. Here is a basic framework that will help you tackle this problem and gain the upper hand.
1) Understand what emotional eating is. We could come up with many complex definitions to describe these behaviors, but we’ve decided to keep in simple. When we refer to either we mean: those times when you’re eating out of control; when you don’t have discipline with your own habits and behaviors. This of course can show up in lots of different ways (as the quotes in the beginning demonstrate), but regardless of the specific situation and what drives you to eat, the end result is the same: you ultimately feel much worse as a result of what you just put in your mouth.
You’ve just consumed way more calories than you need to of the wrong foods (let’s face it: you probably weren’t splurging on raw vegetables!). To top it all off you may feel angry, depressed and ashamed of yourself for not having better self-control and for doing this again and again after you told yourself repeatedly that you wouldn’t.
2) Recognize why you emotionally eat. This is a biggie, and is a fundamental component of understanding any behavior. We have found that if you look deeply at what is going on behind emotional eating and night snacking behavior is often a deeper hunger ultimately related to one of two things. 1) Using food to REPLACE things that are missing in your life and 2) using food to AVOID things that are difficult in your life. Let's look at each in a bit more detail.
Replacing- Many people who emotionally or mindlessly eat and snack do because they are trying desperately to replace something that is missing in their life. They hope it will bring them the happiness they’re yearning for. Of course it does not and cannot, but we’re dealing with emotions here- not logic. They are not finding this happiness in some other significant way in their life, and so whether they’re aware of it or not, they hope that food will do the trick.
A common example of what we often seek to replace with food is intimacy and relationships. Many people have difficulties with intimacy (we could probably make the argument that most people do to at least some degree!) and they avoid it. Perhaps they’re scared to get hurt or rejected, or they may have very low self- esteem and they can’t imagine anybody truly liking them so they don’t let anyone close.
In this case, they end up using food as the replacement, or substitute, for a relationship with a significant other in their life. In short, they hope the food will somehow give them the sense of love they are looking for.
Avoiding- The other main reason we see that people emotionally eat and mindlessly snack is to avoid things in their life they fear or find very uncomfortable to deal with.
This could be strong emotions that they are afraid will overwhelm them. Maybe it’s anger they carry from being told they were not good enough while growing up. Maybe it’s a deep sadness they never fully got to process from a loss they suffered as a child. It could be a chronic sense of low self-esteem that they just don’t want to fully admit to or face.
In these situations, they often fear the negative emotions they are experiencing and they want to avoid them. They’re afraid that if they really let themselves feel what is going on, they’ll be overwhelmed or overrun by the emotional experience. This may sound a bit extreme, but many times people are afraid that they’ll completely lose control if they allow themselves to feel their emotions fully.
For instance, maybe they’re afraid that if they let their mom know how truly angry they feel for her constant criticism they’ll go completely out of control and maybe even become violent. This could be true in any relationship in their lives.
Maybe they’re afraid that if they really let themselves feel they sadness they’ve been carrying from their father’s death when they were young, they’ll be completely swallowed by the grief and won’t be able to function in their lives for years to come.
3) Understand the triggers that cause you to eat. All personal change work begins with self-awareness. If you aren’t aware of the things that trigger you to emotionally eat and mindlessly snack, it’s going to be very hard to interrupt those negative patterns and start creating new ones.
Spend some time reflecting and writing in your journal for a few moments so you can learn with some precision exactly what your triggers are. For instance, do you tend to emotionally eat or mindlessly snack? All day? Just at night? On the weekends? What usually triggers the behavior? Being alone after a busy day at work? A fight with your husband or wife? When you’re stressed and tired? Sitting in front of the television? When you’ve had a couple drinks? Driving by Starbucks (or Taco Bell, or…) and thinking “oh, what the hell? You get the idea.
Again, spend some time taking an inventory of your habits and patterns. Get to know them as intimately as you can.
4) Start working to break the negative patterns. What are habits? Habits are patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that we learn or create. They are how we do most things in our life, and often we accept them as a given. Think for a second: how do you tie your shoes? The truth is, you could dissect it step by step if you wanted to, but there is no need to. You don’t even have to consciously think about it because the pattern is already so deeply established in your life. It’s a given that you know how to do it- in fact, you do it automatically! That’s what makes it a habit! Our emotional patterns are often very similar. They are so well established in our life that we are hardly aware we do them.
These emotional patterns show up in how we think about ourselves (“I am good” vs. “I am bad”; “I am okay” vs. “I am not okay”), how we think of others (“I like people like him” vs. “I don’t like people like him”) and what we expect to be true in our lives (“I can be thin and happy” vs. “I will be overweight my whole life”). Of course these are simple examples, but they communicate the basic point.
They also show up in our behaviors. For example, “automatically” reaching for a handful of M & M’s when we are stressed; acting with rage towards others when we are upset or scared (or bottling it up completely, by contrast); looking towards others for reassurance that we are “okay”
Here is the important thing to understand: our current patterns have gotten us to EXACTLY where we are in our lives right now. They have gotten us no more and no less. Therefore, if we stick to the same patterns, we are not going to change, and the circumstances of our lives are not very likely to change either.
The most important thing is that we begin finding ways to break these patterns in our lives. You CAN create new patterns in terms of how you handle your emotions and your food choices. It may feel strange or unnatural at first, but through repetition these new patterns gradually solidify into healthy habits. When they do, emotional eating and mindless snacking become a thing of the past, and you may even begin to wonder how they had such a grip on your for so long.
The most important break you have to make in terms of your emotional eating patterns is to start to create some space between Stimulus (the situation that causes an emotional response, or the emotion itself) and Response (how you then respond to the emotional experience- for instance, do you reach for food automatically, or do you take a deep breath and take an inventory of your feelings so you can deal with them better?).
Creating this space is crucial! There are a number of ways you can go about creating this space and of course you have to find what will work best for you. We’re going to share one simple approach here that we find to be the most helpful, and it’s using your breath as a tool. You will probably want to use this in conjunction with the other tools we will share with you in this e-book, but we have found that it is without question the most powerful starting point for creating this crucial distance between your triggers and how you respond to them.
Maybe you’ve thought of using your breath in the past. Perhaps you’ve taken some yoga or meditation classes where they emphasize using the breath. Or maybe you were involved in athletics earlier in your life, and were taught how to use your breath before a competition to still your nerves and focus your attention. Regardless, it’s no wonder that so many disciplines- from sports, to holistic health approaches to spiritual practices- focus on the breath as a key component in getting successful results. It’s truly that powerful. This is why it’s at the top of our list of powerful tools for getting the wheel spinning in the other direction with your emotional eating and mindless snacking. We want you to begin "taking a breath instead of a bite”.