We’ve all been through a similar story. You return home from work after a hectic day and snack on a few candy treats. That leads to ordering a pizza, and before you know it – you're spoon-deep in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
As you polish off the last spoonful of the ice cream, an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and self-loathing washes over your body and mind. You retire to bed feeling terrible about yourself and your position in life.
Emotional eating is a mental health disorder that affects millions of Americans. It’s a method of escaping from the stresses in life and a means of satisfying your cravings for dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical that has a dramatic effect on our central nervous system.
Rid yourself of this destructive behaviour by following these four tips.
1. Don’t give up on yourself
Emotional eating occurs when life becomes stressful. It’s the brain's way of boosting dopamine production in the body to rid yourself of unpleasant negative emotions brought about by your environment.
The next time you find yourself reaching for the cookie jar in response to your stress, stop and monitor your current mental state. What feelings are you experiencing at this moment? If you find you’re feeling anxious or stressed, ask yourself what’s causing these emotions.
We can control our mental state if we decide to take charge of our psychological situation. However, if we fail to manage our mind, then the environment will dictate our course of action – and that almost always ends in disaster.
Tell yourself that it’s okay to feel these feelings, and ask yourself what you can do to remedy the situation. Your subconscious mind contains all the answers to your problems. All you need to do is become aware of the situation and ask yourself what you need to do to correct your behaviour – the mind does the rest.
2. Reward yourself using different strategies
The body and mind work off of a reward system governed by dopamine neurotransmitters. Every time you experience something positive in your life, the brain releases dopamine to flood your body with feelings of happiness and joy.
However, this reward system is venerable to mismanagement by our conscious mind. We can quickly pick up bad habits and train them into providing a dopamine response if we aren’t careful with our behaviour.
Cigarette smoking is a prime example of this negative feedback loop that floods our mind with dopamine. If you’re a smoker, you know that it’s terrible for you and that you should quit for the betterment of your health. However – the mind and body need that nicotine fix, and you become irritable without it running through your body.
This example is the same reward system that emotional eating takes advantage of when you feel the need to gorge yourself on candy and fast food.
Reprogramming your dopamine reward system takes time and effort. However, with enough time and patience, you can effectively retrain your mind and body to receive pleasure from positive behaviour as well. For example, after taking a run, your body feels rejuvenated and energized.
3. Eat for function – Not for pleasure
How many times have you picked up a candy bar or a bag of chips – just because it’s lying around? Eating for the sake of eating is a poor lifestyle choice that ends up with you becoming overweight and lethargic.
Remove all convenience foods from your home and avoid the temptation. If your route home from work passes your favourite fast food joint or doughnut shop – change your route and find another way home that helps you avoid the temptation of ordering foods to binge eat.
Avoid behaviour that compromises your best judgment. For instance, if you typically order a pizza on a Friday night to eat while you watch a movie, change your behaviour. Meet up with friends for a drink, or go to the gym instead – anything you can do to break the cycle of dopamine dependency will help you avoid emotional eating.
4. Preparation is everything
Analyze your behaviour and take note of the triggers that make you want to eat. Do you always crack open a pint of ice cream after talking to your ex? Are you binging on candy bars when you feel stressed at the office?
Once you understand what behavior entices you to binge, you can take proactive steps to avoid those situations that trigger your compulsion to eat. When disaster strikes and you feel the need to eat, chant a mantra that reinforces your self-image and self-confidence.