Can psychological treatment stop emotional eating?


Emotional eating is a term that means eating in response to an emotion, as opposed to eating when we are genuinely hungry. It is also referred to as stress eating or “head hunger.” While we usually think of emotions such as frustration, loneliness, anger, fear, and boredom as triggers for impulsive or binge eating, even happiness and the urge to celebrate can cause us to eat emotionally.

The Science Behind Stress Eating

Short-term and acute stress (like a car accident) tends to inhibit our appetite. This is because, when we are upset or afraid, our nervous system kicks into “fight or flight” mode. Our brain and body automatically respond and adrenaline is produced; our body’s resources are directed away from the digestive system and into the bodily systems that we need to protect ourselves. When stress becomes chronic however, the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and can lead to belly fat, remains high and can make us feel inappropriately hungry.

When we are chronically stressed and/or emotional (anxious, depressed, angry, etc.), the foods we crave are never proteins and vegetables. Rather, we crave foods that are high in carbohydrates and fat, foods that are overly processed, and/or foods that are simply enjoyable to eat. (Think potato chips, ice cream, and chocolate). This happens for a reason. Studies indicate that foods high in sugar and fat cause our brain to release feel-good hormones and endorphins and thus trigger a relaxation response—at least temporarily. The term “comfort food” is not a coincidence.

Emotional Eating is Common

The American Psychological Association found that emotional eating and unhealthy eating patterns are quite common. In a 2013 study, 37% of adults reported that they engaged in overeating or the eating of unhealthy foods as a way of coping with stress in the past 30 days. In addition, these same individuals indicated that this type of emotional eating pattern was an ongoing problem for them. After emotional eating and/or eating unhealthy foods, almost half of these adults (49%) reported negative feelings about themselves.

 Psychological Treatment and Addressing Core Issues

Chronic stress and mood-related disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are treatable, as are the emotional eating behaviors that often occur alongside them. A mindfulness-based, cognitive behavioral approach can help.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is designed to identify and restructure negative or debilitating thought patterns. The underlying theory is that our thoughts and beliefs impact our emotions and behavior in profound ways. As such, if we can learn to control our thoughts, we can change our emotions and behaviors (such as overeating). CBT also can bring awareness to emotional eating habits as well as help us to recognize and address emotional triggers during, after, and before a stressful event.

Psychotherapy provides the opportunity to effectively remove or reduce the source of emotional eating. Similarly, treatment can provide behavioral skills to combat overeating, binge eating, or simply eating when you aren’t hungry—whether the situation/trigger is social, emotional, motivational, or environmental. 

If you are eating because of your emotions, a psychologist can help you identify and address underlying psychological issues. Prompt treatment is important because eating will never solve an emotional issue; it only makes you worse in the long run because it usually leads to weight gain, health problems, and feeling disappointed.

About the author: Dr. Farrah Hauke, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. She provides coaching, counseling, and evaluation services to adolescents and adults of all ages.

Finding healthier ways to address your emotions is the key to feeling and doing better. In psychotherapy, the process of healing can begin through support, solutions, and empowerment. Are you ready to take back control of your eating habits and behavior? Call Dr. Hauke today at 480-659-5107 or visit www.ArizonaPsych.com to learn more.

To get help for emotional eating, click here for a list of therapists in your area.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Eating Disorders