People use different mechanisms to cope with stress, anxiety and unpleasant feelings and events. While some techniques for coping with negative experiences have long-lasting effects, others simply offer short-term and often deceptive comfort. Finding comfort in food is a common tactic to suppress and regulate difficult feelings and emotions. However, the truth is that food not only does not solve the challenges we face but also creates conditions that further deteriorate our emotional state.

There are many situations that can provoke emotional eating. Regardless of the circumstances that cause it –  the result is often the same. The effect is instant but the feeling of relaxation is deceptive. Even if eating can make you feel better for the moment, the feelings that caused it are still there. Not only do the emotions return, but they are often accompanied by feelings of guilt over the unnecessary calories that were consumed.

Is emotional eating an eating disorder?

Emotional eating itself is not an eating disorder. However, it can signal a disturbed relationship with food, which can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.

Why food?

There are several reasons why eating can become a coping mechanism.

First of all, as such, we can point to dopamine, also known as the neurotransmitter that is responsible for the feeling of pleasure and joy. Like any other activity that does make us feel good, eating tasty food does release dopamine in the brain and does activate the reward system in our brain. The brain often makes us repeat behaviours and activities that are considered important to our survival by associating them precisely with the reward system in our brain. This also explains where the strong instinct for food comes from: it is associated with our survival. If our brain thinks that food makes us feel good and soothes emotional pain, then it is probably important to our survival and will do everything to make sure we keep this behaviour.

When it comes to food, we also form routines and habits. If we always eat when we’re anxious, we are reinforcing this specific pattern of behaviour making the possibility of unconsciously searching for comfort food at the first hint of stress very high.

Also, food is available everywhere and is legal, and food-related messages and images can make you feel hungrier.

What makes someone eat because of their emotions?

Several external factors can contribute to emotional stress eating, such as work, financial anxiety, health problems and relationship difficulties.

Apart from the external factor, emotional eating has been found to be related to internal factors such as introspective awareness, alexithymia (the inability to understand, analyze, or explain emotions) or emotional dysregulation (the inability to manage emotions). What’s more, it has been found that people who emotionally overeat more often adhere to strict diets or have a history of dieting.

Emotional binge eating cycle

Emotional eating goes through four stages: trigger, cover-up, false bliss, and hangover.

A “trigger” is an event or circumstance that causes negative emotional experiences in us. Any circumstance, occasion or conversation can give rise to negative emotions such as anger, sadness, irritation, and disappointment, for example. Our personal history and past experiences play a particularly important role in how we react to events in the outside world.

Concealment: Eating foods high in sugar, carbohydrates and fat, such as ice cream, cakes and biscuits, is one of the most popular coping strategies for negative emotions. These traditionally considered “comfort foods” are so named because they temporarily mask unpleasant experiences by providing a sense of relaxation.

Consuming the so-called “comfort foods” in an attempt to cope with emotions, takes us into the “false bliss” stage. It shows up with the deceptive feeling that our emotional problems have been resolved and we have managed to restore harmony to our lives. “Comfort food” allows a person to hide from negative experiences and temporarily forget about them.

The sense of coping with negative emotional experiences and emotions soon begins to fade, and the temporary state of emotional comfort is replaced by a “hangover.” During the hangover stage, a person can experience two types of discomfort. Physically, which follows the intake of too much “comfort” food, on one hand, and emotional discomfort caused by the feelings of guilt and shame that arise as a result of the inability to stick to the chosen goal of healthy eating.

Emotional vs. physical hunger

There are several differences between emotional and physical hunger:

  • While emotional hunger comes on suddenly, physical hunger comes on gradually
  • While physical hunger is the result of a physiological need, emotional hunger is the result of some emotional trigger
  • Physical hunger can wait, but emotional hunger feels like it must be satisfied immediately
  • Emotional hunger is craving specific and often unhealthy foods
  • If with physical hunger we are likely to stop eating when we feel full, with emotional hunger we are more likely to continue eating
  • Emotional eating can trigger feelings of guilt and shame