Emotional Eating: An Open Eyed Foray

I guess this post deserves a trigger warning. I’m going to talk about my recent experience of emotional eating, something that I have never consciously recognized as a thing I did until the last few weeks. I want to explore what I am perceiving inside me as I address these feelings and “urges” explicitly. I am bringing to this discussion my experience as a therapist and client in therapy for many years. Your mileage may vary. If you don’t agree with what I say, you may feel free to say so but I’m asking you, reader, to be kind because the events that have led me here are painful and personal.

Challenges, I’m having them, the kind that impose themselves unwanted, unbidden and undeserved. That’s okay, it’s part of life. Over all, I’m doing really well.  After a few days of anxious dissociation, followed by disembodied calm, I have settled into a proto-new-normal. I’m stabilizing things, mobilizing others and realizing that I am absolutely going to be totally fine no matter how this all shakes out at the end. (Yes, I’m deliberately vague, but pick your major life issue, any would really fit here)

On the activity end, I am being vigilant about getting outside every day with the dog and doing yoga about twice a week. This is for my mental health and to keep my body moving. I’ve also gone to get body work done because as soon as this stress hit, every chronic thing regressed at lightening speed to it’s preferred natural state. My left side body likes to collapse in on itself setting off a whole bunch of issues everywhere. So, resources are going there. I love Osteopathy personally for that sort of thing but in the state I’m in any thing from Reiki to a Swedish Massage with a giant man named “Bjorn” would have been fine. Just the presence of another human whose nervous system is something below full throttle saying they will take care of me is probably a benefit. I just described over a quarter of the reason therapy works in that last sentence. Sitting in front of a person with their own feet on the ground who cares is a real life line in these terrible times.

Anyway, back to eating. The last time I was this stressed were events around my divorce around 13 years ago. It was a much worse situation then. My kids were younger and I didn’t have a job. I was desperate and dependant on people who didn’t have my best interests necessarily in mind. I couldn’t eat and I lost a scary amount of weight. I did not want that to replicate itself in this current situation. I have a lot more to hang onto and also a lot more to lose. I have to be present for clients and students in demanding environments. Having a starving brain is not optimal. So I went to the doctor and explained that I didn’t want to get addicted to Ativan, what other options were there? She suggested Remeron, an atypical anti-depressant, because it made a person sleepy, quelled nighttime anxiety and boosted appetite. Cool, all that currently ails me.

Now many of you probably have experienced the fact that anti-depressant medication doesn’t fix the things that you don’t have control over. All it does is settle down or level up some inner physiology, allowing you to stay in a “window of tolerance” of your emotions more easily. Amongst many other things, that means I could continue to think and make decisions without the dissociation or extreme numbing. I was also more rested, which contributes to resilience. I could hang on to all the things that I know about me. And then there it was, this new thing.

How curious. At night, after all my work was done (oh work, you great distracter), I felt a pull to the kitchen. Now it’s not like I’ve never snacked at night. If I stay up really late, I actually get hungry and can eat another meal. But this was a decidedly different feeling. It was new, a yearning. I was not hungry. I was not even peckish. I was certainly sad and. . .empty, not overwhelmingly so, but clearly and emphatically so. That emptiness declared to me, “Eat.” So I did. The first time I really mindfully paid attention to the phenomenon was about three days into the behaviour. That time, when my body said, “Eat.” I chose home made chocolate chip cookies and went about noticing what happened when I ate them. I found that the particular sad that was this empty feeling was not just filled, but actually comforted. It was like I was interacting with a person who was giving me a little love. It was, in fact, regulating. 

Now people, I’m sure you are going to have feelings about this. I ate two more cookies and was comforted. I let that comfort wash over me in all it’s sugar-butter-egg-flour-chocolate glory and I was not sorry. I was not, in that moment going to deny the pleasure and peace I was experiencing. Then I took my Remeron and went to bed.

I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with all this knowing. I know that “emotional eating” is a real experience that many people struggle with. Yet there is no denying that eating is not merely a function of the body. It represents many things according to context including pleasure, expression, connection, memory, hope, fun and satisfaction. I am not going to be sad forever. I also think that by allowing the empty space to be filled up just a little by a cookie, I am not doing myself any great disservice or starting down the road to hell. It took up a cookie sized space and the rest of the pain is still there to work through. I’m not going to, nor would I every be able to, plaster it over with cookies and I don’t think I have to try. So is this what I’m doing? Mindfully emotionally eating? Letting the comfort in for what it is and tending to myself in all the ways. I guess that’s what I’m doing.


A cookie sheet of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. These are the thick kind made with butter and brown sugar.
Delicious home made chocolate chip cookies on a cookie sheet just out of the oven. They look the same as mine.

10 thoughts on “Emotional Eating: An Open Eyed Foray

  1. Great post about a very hard thing. I think emotional eating gets a bad rap. Seriously. It’s not like “emotional murdering someone.” It’s food. It feels good. It’s comforting. I’m sorry you’re going through such a hard time but I’m really glad you can mindfully enjoy the cookies

  2. I love your comment “mindful emotional eating”. I’ve been working on doing that very thing too. I wish you peace and comfort in whatever upsetting transition you are going through right now.

  3. I’m sorry things are so rough for you right now. Thanks for sharing this personal and important story. It’s made some things clearer for me, a person who does emotional eating that doesn’t always feel comforting.

    1. Thanks Catherine I appreciate your kind words. My own wondering about the “emotional eating” that is discomforting (which has also been part of this experience, but I didn’t highlight it in this piece) brings me back to shame as a follow-on experience from the attempt to gain comfort. I wonder if it’s about trying to get the eating to do a thing that is beyond its scope. It fails, and we keep trying and then the entire batch of cookies is gone. That may lead to a shame response that makes everything worse. It’s pretty tricky and very dependant on the individual’s past. One thing I believe very strongly is strictly behavioural interventions that do not address underlying, subconscious stuff from the past are probably going to fail to disrupt a persistent pattern of this kind of self soothing. It’s so very much not about food. Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. I think you’re right that shame is part of the cycle. I’m not saying cookies are the answer. But if you’re sad and a cookie or two helps in the middle of the night, then eat the damn cookies! You mean shame that it doesn’t work. But the thing is sometimes it does help short term and then there’s shame about food and cookies.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I understand all too well going through challenging times and I wish you well as you navigate your personal journey. I have never thought of emotional eating as something that can be done mindfully, and it’s something I will give a lot more thought to and consider if it’s something I can train myself to do. Emotional eating has been a struggle for me since I was a teenager. I have faced a series of my own trying circumstances over the years and each time I have almost destroyed my body by abusing food in the name of comfort. So your article was kind of a trigger for me. In a FB response, I wanted to offer caution that while you have been able to find a way to comfort yourself through mindful emotional eating, that this is not my experience or the experience of many others. This is not to dismiss your experience or invalidate it in any way – we are all different. I just never considered that emotional eating could be done mindfully, but instead was always a sign of a lack of impulse control and could become addictive and destructive. I have spent my life trying to find ways to control that impulse and constantly feel that I am failing. My concern is that some may think that they can eat comfort foods in a mindful way, but can quickly begin to eat in a destructive way. I know your article was not addressing this, so please don’t see this as a criticism. Rather, I just wanted to share a different perspective. I wish I could practice mindful emotional eating. I wonder if it’s something I could learn. At this point, I find it hard to believe it is possible for someone like me. But I am open to try. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    1. Hi Donna, Thanks for this thoughtful response. This topic is triggering and I think I am deliberately trying to complicate it a little more. I’m certainly not advocating “mindful emotional eating” as the new blanket personal care. I was rather trying to explore what brought me to it and take a pause at that moment before the tumble into shame. In the regular discourse, emotional eating is definitely seen as de facto shameful. Like somehow because we are not getting our needs met fully in more virtuous ways, we are less worthy. So I resist that. I want to try to be more neutral about the question, “what purpose is this food serving to me right now?” and even more interesting, “will it fulfill the purpose I think it will?” However, I am really aware that food, and especially the “comfort” version of food, often puts people close to a shame storm at even the thought of it. One thing it totally for sure. We are all worthy of care and love that we can give ourselves.

  5. I think we all need some softness and coping some days.
    Sometimes a few cookies just feels nice.
    And I agree…it’s got to be better than drugs or alcohol…

    I think when we acknowledge we are using something to cope, and are aware of our behaviour, that is is helpful.
    It’s when we make poor choices and deny why that we get in trouble.

    I’m going through a major trauma/stress right now. I am willing to take comfort where I can find it.


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