5 Main Triggers for Emotional Eating

When you’re in the moment of craving – wanting to eat, though you’re not hungry – it doesn’t help to have abstract knowledge of why you eat. If you know that you eat when you’re angry, for example, that doesn’t help much in the moment that you’re angry. You’re still angry and you still want to eat.

The only way to dissolve the craving is to figure out the true need underneath the emotion, and take action to address the true need. Simply recognizing that you’re angry doesn’t help. You need to uncover the reasons below the anger – the unfilled needs or boundary violations that triggered the anger.

Connecting with yourself on this deeper level is hard when you’ve spent years ignoring your own needs, but it’s necessary. If all you know is that you’re unhappy, the only way out is a comfort behavior like eating. If you know the underlying need, then you can work on meeting it.

Over the years of working with emotional eaters, I’ve noticed five main themes:

1. Powerlessness

Feeling trapped in a bad situation is the #1 trigger for emotional eating. When you are feeling trapped, emotional eating is a form of rebellion. You may not be able to get what you want in x area, but you can eat whatever you want. If you’re eating when you “shouldn’t” or what you “shouldn’t”, it’s even more satisfying as rebellion.

The solution is to figure out what is making you feel powerless, and then figure out an action you can take in the direction of fixing the problem. There is always something you can do to improve the situation. Even if you can’t completely fix it (and often you cannot), just taking an action will shift you out of that feeling of powerlessness.

2. Anger

Anger is the natural response to a boundary violation. This can mean someone stepping on your toes at work, commenting inappropriately on what you eat, touching you inappropriately, or disrespecting your feelings or needs, to give just a few examples. From Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:

Just by virtue of being a human being, you have certain rights and ownerships that are yours absolutely – things that are in your realm, and over which you have exclusive authority to exercise control. If someone tries to control something that is in your realm, or take something that is yours to give and not theirs to take, that’s a boundary violation.

If you are feeling angry, ask yourself in what way your boundaries have been violated. And then, when you know, assert yourself – reset the boundary.

3. Loneliness

There are many reasons that people turn to food when they’re feeling lonely. Food has a deep assocation with love from infancy when our mothers fed us. Also, loneliness makes you feel “empty” and food “fills you up”. The heart thinks in metaphors.

Of course, the solution to loneliness is other people – call a friend, or figure out ways you can be around people more if you’re too isolated. Also note that what feels like loneliness is not always loneliness (see this previous post for more).

4. Pressure of Heavy Demands

When you’re feeling pressured by heavy demands, emotional eating often takes the form of grazing. This is part procrastination, part relief from discomfort, and part a way of symbolically “fueling” yourself to meet the demands on you. As I said, the heart thinks in metaphors.

The action you take to address this problem depends on exactly what need you’re trying to fill – avoidance, relief, or emotional fuel. If you need a break, there are other ways you can give yourself one. If you’re anxious about meeting all the demands on you, simply reassuring yourself that you can is often helpful – or at least stop the voice in your head that is telling you that you cannot.

5. Fear & Uncertainty

Many emotional eaters think of food as a friend – something that is always there for them while the rest of the world is unreliable.

Worry in the face of uncertainty is a discomfort over lack of control. There’s a superstition that goes with worry – a sense that if you stop worrying, then what you’re worrying about will happen. There’s an unconscious belief that staying focussed on the problem somehow keeps it in control, that you can think it into compliance.

What underlies discomfort in the face of uncertainty is a lack of faith in your ability to handle whatever comes. Probably there is a voice in your head telling you all the awful things that will happen because you can’t handle what will come. Stop that negative voice and start telling yourself the truth: you’re a competent adult, and you can cope.

The Solution is to Take an Action

The way you stop emotional eating is to take an action to meet the true need. But first you need to discover the true need, and this can be hard. You may not be able to do it at first, but if you keep asking yourself the question, the answer will eventually come, and it will get easier over time.

Do you recognize these five triggers for emotional eating? Are there any I left out?

24 thoughts on “5 Main Triggers for Emotional Eating

  1. Sheryl, once again, you hit the nail on the head again. So much to think about here.

    THANKS as always for sharing your experience, clear thinking and new discoveries with us…I LOVE this forum and want to recommend it to everyone in the world! best, Sun

  2. I feel validated to read that ACTION is the solution. Found out today that even with fertility treatment, my chances of having another child aren’t great. Took action by seeing if I could switch to more insurance coverage (I can’t, but my mom is willing to help pay for treatment), calling/emailing loved ones for support (that helped a lot), and doing some more packing in our kitchen while listening to Michael Jackson albums. Ee hee hee!

    I did briefly turn to food for comfort; I was going to eat sweets instead of lunch. But then I stopped, and made myself a spinach salad with feta and some fruit. That was a small action I took to remind myself I’m worth good care.

    Today I am in awe at the power of action.

  3. “4. Pressure of Heavy Demands

    When you’re feeling pressured by heavy demands, emotional eating often takes the form of grazing. This is part procrastination, part relief from discomfort, and part a way of symbolically “fueling” yourself to meet the demands on you. As I said, the heart thinks in metaphors.

    The action you take to address this problem depends on exactly what need you’re trying to fill – avoidance, relief, or emotional fuel. If you need a break, there are other ways you can give yourself one. If you’re anxious about meeting all the demands on you, simply reassuring yourself that you can is often helpful – or at least stop the voice in your head that is telling you that you cannot.”

    this is SO true for me. I’ve been working on giving myself breaks, and removing from my realm the things that I use to procrastinate, like video games. That way, I don’t get behind on work as much, and am thus less likely to panic.

    And this….

    “Worry in the face of uncertainty is a discomfort over lack of control. There’s a superstition that goes with worry – a sense that if you stop worrying, then what you’re worrying about will happen. There’s an unconscious belief that staying focused on the problem somehow keeps it in control, that you can think it into compliance.”

    Boy, do I ever do that. I try to write it into compliance often, by journaling or even blogging.

    Thanks for sharing these insights.

  4. Wow. #1 and #2 are me to the hilt. When it gets bad my biggest problem is thinking I just don’t care! I’m too tired to find another solution. Yet I must slow it down and do just that.

  5. Hi Laura,

    Stopping emotional eating is ALL about self-care – that’s really the whole thing. Because emotional eating is an attempt at self-care – not the most effective strategy, but an attempt. As you learn to practice true self-care, you don’t need to eat to feel better.

    – Sheryl

  6. Hi Sheryl,

    You asked on the forum if the description of eating out of uncertainty felt right to us and to respond here. I have been thinking about this blog post for days in relation to the post I had on the forum. What you wrote in this blog post, while absolutely true and definitely a factor in some emotional eating, is not exactly the feeling I was talking about. Like I’ve said, I’ve been thinking about this for days, and I’m not sure I can really describe what I meant. But basically, as contradictory as this sounds, I’m not really a worrier. I’m not worried about possibilities of what MIGHT happen or that if I stop worrying it will happen. I also intellectually KNOW that I’m an adult and can handle anything that does come. (I know I said in my forum post that this was the advice given to me by someone. While it’s great advice, reminding myself of this did not alleviate the overwhelming fear I had about the particular situation I discussed.) So, I’ve been thinking and thinking…

    And I had a rather large “a-ha!” moment the other day about it, but the details are too personal and I’m not comfortable putting them on this blog post. Essentially, I realized that as I developed in the world, I didn’t have the opportunity to be on my own and make my own decisions. Therefore, I’m still learning how to trust and predict my own behavior in new situations or challenging ones. That, coupled with some well-worn neural pathways that immediately shift into crisis-mode and paranoia at the slightest hint of trouble, seemed to lead to my obsession with this particular situation. Once I realized this, my fear went away and I haven’t had the urge to eat over it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes I feel like my emotional eating comes from a kind of reflex of emotion that was taught to me from a very young age and not from any genuine feeling about anything. In these instances, if I really think about how I feel about something, I don’t actually FEEL powerless, angry, afraid, etc. But the problems is, sometimes I jump into those emotions before I reflect on how I ACTUALLY feel about something. So I end up wanting to eat or eating emotionally over something I’m feeling abstractly (something I think I’m SUPPOSED to feel) and not because of anything that actually occurred. I guess this is why it was so hard for me to take any action regarding the issue I discussed on the forum. There wasn’t an actual event or thing to work on, just a cesspool of feelings that I jumped straight to because of these well-worn neural pathways. Does this make any sense? I feel like I’m talking in circles. I’m not sure this distinction even matters, but for me there is definitely a different quality to it than the emotional eating I’ve experienced with the five themes you posted above (which, by the way, have made up at least 95% of my emotional eating).

  7. Hi Octopus,

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    First off, I want to clarify that OF COURSE you can post about this in the forum, which is much more private than the blog (not indexed by search engines, only open to members). That’s the whole purpose of the forum – to be able to talk openly about sensitive topics. I was just trying to encourage comments on blog posts to be posted in the blog as a general thing.

    You raise an interesting point: the idea of eating over lack of trust in yourself. That makes a lot of sense because so much of Normal Eating is about regaining trust in yourself. I think to think about that some more.

    – Sheryl

  8. I really appreciate this topic, especially right now when #4 rings especially true for me. With all of the pressure of my current remodeling project, I just want some relief and I often go to food for that. In reading Octopus’ entry and your reply, though, I realize that even more than that feeling of overwhelm is a basic lack of trust in myself. What if I am doing it all wrong…my ideas are horrible, and all of this money spent will be wasted. That, I think, is the underlying fear that has kept me restless and distracted – unwilling to look closely at myself and my choices lately.
    So what action can I take??? Talk with my therapist about this issue of trusting myself, for one thing. And I can simply look around and realize that I DO have a wonderful home that I have created – I can nurture that by taking good care of this home and this BODY!

    Thanks!
    Trace

  9. While I see all of these triggers in some of my emotional eating, a big one for me is simply that junk food calls to me if it’s near by. Really. If there’s sugar in the house (especially if there’s not much, but there happens to be some cookies or a piece of cake or some ice cream) I feel drawn to it, just to finish it. Even when there are no underlying emotional issues. I realize this means I have lots more reframing to do–I’m afraid to keep treats in the house, in case I lose control, perhaps I don’t think I deserve to eat those things because I’m not skinny, and then I end up faking an excuse for an errand when dh is home and can watch the kids so I can eat something fattening in the car…which is quite pathetic. So, even though I’ve been a non-dieter for a long time, deprivation (even if it’s only imagined) is still a trigger for overeating.

  10. This is a brilliant post, Sheryl, and I thank you for it.
    I would add that overeaters tend to overfunction for others and underfunction for themselves. Needs, dreams, desires are left unexplored, others needs are prioritized, and taking action for ourselves (action that might risk making others angry, or upset this dynamic) isn’t easy! But it is the only way out. We must take action on our own behalf. We must grow to trust ourselves that we can and will do this. When I have felt paralyzed and overwhelmed in taking care of others, I rebel by eating.
    Great post. Thanks.

  11. Hi Amy,

    >While I see all of these triggers in some of my emotional eating, a big one for me is simply that junk food calls to me if it’s near by.

    The two main reasons for overeating are emotional eating, and the qualities of processed food, which trick you into overeating. It sounds like you’re talking about the fat, sugar, and salt issue. Take a look at these posts:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/06/2-main-reasons-people-overweight/
    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/06/how-to-stop-overeating-sugar-fat-and-salt/

    – Sheryl

  12. Hi Gail,

    I agree that emotional eating is mainly caused by lack of self-care. That’s the underlying problem in all five situations I list here. When you don’t take care of yourself, you end up eating to feel better. When you take action in your own behalf, you don’t need to eat.

    – Sheryl

  13. I agree with these triggers, but the solutions offered are pretty thin (no pun intended), with no new insights. Stress, anger, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty are part of everyday life for most of us. “Thinking” our way out of these stresses is like “thinking” ourselves thin — wishful thinking that produces no results. Sure, if I could magically “think away” every bit of stress and negativity from my life, I’m sure I’d do less emotional eating. But life IS full of stress, anxiety, and a lot of hard work for most of us, and “wishing” this weren’t the case (or “reminding” ourselves to deny the stark reality of the situation) isn’t going to change that fact. It’s amazing how little new info there really is out there, how there are no new solutions. Not trying to be negative, but you’re just another person offering a “simple” solution that won’t work in the complex day-to-day real world in which most of us reside. Life is hard, life is stressful, food makes us feel better in the short term. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t do a thing for me, but a nice cheeseburger? Makes me feel good every time. It works. The solution offered here: find something besides food. Gee, never thought of THAT one before. : )

  14. Hi Fred,

    The difficulty in describing the solution is that the solution is always very specific to the situation – it’s not a general magic pill type thing. Maybe there’s a problem in your marriage (that’s a very common reason for becoming overweight), or a serious problem with your job. You have to look at the specific situation, and then take action specific to the problem. It might mean a difficult conversation, or rescheduling your life so you have time to yourself, or asserting yourself in a situation where someone always takes advantage. Sometimes it means making really large changes – leaving a marriage, leaving a job, moving to a new place. You find the trigger by pausing and looking inward at the moment of craving.

    The solution I’m describing is actually not simple at all. It involves a lot of very difficult emotional work – brutally honest introspection – and stretching yourself to take difficult action. I work with coaching clients on specifics, and also people talk about specifics in the forum, which is more private than this blog.

    – Sheryl

  15. I can relate to ALL of these triggers at one time or another. But like Sheryl stated there is no universal magic pill that can offer a solution. That has been the hard part for me, being able to identify the problem but still at a loss as to how to deal with it. I have recently taken a class on Buddhism that is beginning to help me. First the meditation aspect offers me time to actually sit with myself without distractions (FOOD!) and helps with some of the anxiety I have been experiencing. Something else has also begun to work on me , that is the notion of compassion, this includes having it for myself too. I would recommend a book by PEMA CHODRON called When Things Fall Apart, it is very easy to read and while it is not about eating per se, it still has a lot of advice than can be applied. The practice of Tonglen, breathing in pain and suffering, breathing out compassion for everybody, has been very helpful for me.
    When anything difficult arises- instead of trying to get rid of it by, say ,eating, we breathe it in. Instead of seeing craving or addiction as a poisons that must be avoided we instead use them as seeds of compassion and openness. With tonglen we can breathe in the suffering, along with the identical pain of others. This is not just our individual pain, or shame- its part of the human condition. We breathe in with the wish that we could all be free of suffering, we breathe out with a sense of open space and freshness. Doing this has really awakened me to my own sense of compassion with myself. I breathe in all the pain, suffering, shame, guilt, etc of all of us with food addiction the world, and breathe out love and compassion for us all and I begin to feel it. I really think that is at the root of the issue, formulating a sense of loving compassion for ourselves. So often I have been caught in the trap, the cycle of self -hatred (samsara), the one that leads me to overeat because of all the anger I have with the world and myself. Turning it around and using it as positive energy to generate compassion instead of aggression, that has been a wonderful starting place for me.

  16. I wish all of these do not apply to me, but they do. I struggle to gain control daily, but just ate 2 ice cream cones (no ice cream), 1 chocolate bar, 9 low fat cheezits, 4 lollipops, turkey pepperoni,…..need I say more. I am so out of control. As I type this tears stream down my face…when will I get a handle on it??

  17. I am just now reading your book,and loving it. I feel that my reason I find it hard to quit eating and also stop thinking about food all the time is Bordon it isn’t listed in the “Main Triggers for Emotional Eating”.

  18. Hi Della,

    Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I got swine flu at the beginning of September and got very behind in email and other things.

    Boredom is a special case – I have a whole section on it in the book, page 134.

    I’m glad you like the book.

    – Sheryl

  19. Sheryl,
    I just came across your website and it addresses so many VERY underlying things that I deal with, and try to pretend that I don’t deal with, even to myself. I feel so overwhelmed as I read this; it it just so spot-on and makes me feel very emotional about something I kept in the closet and tried to hide from even myself.
    I don’t even talk to my husband about my food obsession, and we are very close.
    I am a young mom of two young children, view myself as basically attractive, and weigh 135 or so at 5’6″, what I consider to be very average. I haven’t really been able to find things online about people of average weight that deal with compulsive eating.
    I do get into periods where I will weigh myself multiple times per day, then be able to stop for a month or so. I will keep food journals, count calories, diet only to fail a day or two later. I have been in periods where I am able to avoid eating during the day and only eat a bit of food at night and then mantain a much lower weight than what I am now.
    Sometimes I feel that the only way to be what I consider a good weight for me, and to have a good relationship with food, is to not at very much at all.
    I definitely don’t fit the label for anorexic, or binge eating, because I am more of a grazer.
    I just obsess about food and weight so much, and even have delusional thoughts that my girlfriends would probably like me more if I weight 5 or 10 pounds less. I realize these thoughts are crazy, and they probably wouldn’t even notice.
    I’ve thought that if I don’t get control over these issues, I won’t be the best mom I can be.
    I relate to the black and white thing, and the giving to others all of the time while lacking self-care, and the intense cravings that leave one feelings powerless and uncomfortable.
    Food, to me, is almost like a dangerous substance. I seem better off just avoiding it sometimes, because when I sit down for a meal, I feel it is difficult to eat an appropriate portion slowly and difficult to stop.
    I envy my husband and friends who seem to not understand the definition of “comfort food”, or who just don’t eat when they are hungry, as if it is so easy.
    Is it possible for someone who is not overweight to have a compulsive eating disorder?

  20. And, I will not eat to try to feel intense hunger and then reward myself for going so long without eating. A very unhealthy thing. But I wouldn’t directly call it binge eating, because I rarely eat enough to cause me serious discomfort, just bloating and heaviness. I don’t eat enough to want to be alone or anything like that, but I do eat more than I need, and even when I am not hungry. I often fantasize about what it would be like to not think about food so much, to just enjoy it (I love cooking and gardening and nutrition), and be capable of making good choices.

    Also, I hope you are recovering from the swing flu.

  21. Hi Amy,

    One of the things that’s very different about Normal Eating is that I define the core problem as the obsession itself. The problem is not your weight, which could be anything (thin, fat, or normal). The problem is the obsession, which as you so vividly describe, is extremely painful all by itself.

    Emotional eating serves two purposes – to self-soothe, and to distract. When the obsession is especially bad, as what you describe, the distraction piece is generally paramount. That is, you are thinking about your weight to avoid thinking about other things that are even more upsetting and feel outside your control. This is explained in more detail in the book. These are the issues you’ll explore as you move through the Normal Eating stages.

    I’m over the swine flu, thanks for asking. At least I don’t have to worry anymore about getting it!

    – Sheryl

  22. Hi Sheryl,
    I feel alot younger than most of the other bloggers, so I feel a little out of place. I am not married or have kids, im still in college. Although, my struggles are similar to those previously mentioned. I’ve never blogged before but I’ve been feeling so … numb lately…i figured i’d give this a shot.

    I find myself struggling with my relationship with food. I notice that I am an anxious person and I disassociate myself alot from reality, mostly when i feel stressed or unsafe or overwhelmed. My goal is to be more mindful in my life and have a neutral relationship with food. Its scary to think how i life my life on “autopilot”.

    Sometimes i duno how to open up to myself…sometimes im too anxious to calm down and breathe even for 5 minutes…Im looking for support even though im unsure of what im really looking for…

    I’d appreciate any feedback, from anyone,
    Sincerely,
    Anna

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