I eat my emotions. I eat when I’m mad, when I’m bored, when I’m sad… I feel full and think I should stop but I just can’t. I feel really guilty about it because I know it’s bad, and I’m gaining weight. What can I do?
First, there’s no reason you should feel guilty. You are trying to change an unhealthy habit, which is great! Congratulations. Of course, this can also be REALLY hard. It’s great that you’re thinking about how you can take care of your body and stop eating your emotions—you should feel proud.
Eating is often a comforting activity. Your brain actually releases chemicals that make you feel good when you eat a lot. Evolutionarily, this is really smart! Back in the hunter-gatherer days, when you weren’t sure where your next meal was going to come from, it made sense for your body to reward you for eating a ton. This is especially true when it comes to sugar, fat and salt. Unfortunately, since we have much better access to food now than we did back in our hunting and gathering days, this evolutionary mechanism can backfire.
Since eating is a quick and easy way to make yourself feel better, it makes sense that you turn to it when you need a pick-me-up. You’re right, though, that eating past the point of feeling full can be seriously unhealthy, and lead to long-term health problems like heart disease, diabetes and more.
Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders
What you’ve described is often called “disordered eating.” Disordered eating includes a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that, alone, don’t warrant the diagnosis of an eating disorder—and it’s incredibly common. You’ve described two common disordered eating behaviors—emotionally-driven eating and feelings of guilt and shame related to food.
It’s possible that you have Binge Eating Disorder (BED). This is a serious but treatable eating disorder. Media depictions of eating disorders may frequently depict anorexia, but BED is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States. To be diagnosed with BED you have to meet several very specific criteria, but you’ve described some of the general symptoms. You can learn more about BED here. You can also call the National Eating Disorder Awareness hotline at 1-800-931-2237 to learn more and get connected with resources.
What You Can Do Right Now
It sounds like it would be helpful to learn other coping mechanisms for dealing with your feelings. The next time you want to eat, take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Are you hungry? Sad? Irritable? Angry? Guilty? Instead of eating, try to do something else that is calming or rewarding. Try drinking some tea, dancing around your living room, calling a good friend, or doing something creative. Consider keeping a journal. Write down what you’re feeling and why. Do something to release your emotions, like punching or screaming into your pillow. If possible, make a plan of action to deal with the situation that’s upsetting you. For example, if you’re feeling upset with a friend, write down what you want to say to them and make a plan to talk to them about it. When you begin to feel “bad,” think about this plan.
How to Get Help
You are not alone. If you feel comfortable, talk to someone you trust—a parent or caregiver, sibling, teacher, good friend or religious leader—about what you’re going through. You do not need to carry your feelings of guilt alone.
Talk to your health care provider. They can help connect you to a nutritionist who has experience with disordered eating. Together, you can put together a plan to help you take care of your body and work toward becoming your healthiest self.
You may also want to talk to a therapist. They can work with you on coping mechanisms that don’t involve food, and help you learn to process your feelings of guilt. Despite common assumptions that therapy is only for people with mental illnesses, therapy is a great tool for anyone looking to grow as a person (which sounds like you!).
If you live in NYC and are 10-22 years old, you can make a free, confidential appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Here, you can see a physician, nutritionist and therapist for free, under one roof.
A version of this post was originally published in May, 2018.