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Reducing Emotions From Wild to Mild

Emotional eating

Not a week goes by when clients don’t come in with stories about how their emotions have gotten the best of them and into trouble with food. They blew up at their supervisor when their feelings were hurt by critical evaluation, then polished off the bag of M&Ms they keep stashed in their desk drawer. They had two large pieces of ice-cream cake at their friend’s birthday party because they didn’t know many people there. They felt so guilty refusing to accompany a nagging, narcissistic parent to the doctor that they picked at food all day long though they weren’t hungry in the least.

These are situations in which one might feel mild distress, while emotional eaters often feel wild distress. The goal isn’t to turn off a feeling but to scale it way down to what might be considered natural or normal in a situation, then deal with it minus the food-seeking. One reason that emotional eaters turn to eating to manage emotions is that their feelings are overwhelmingly intense. In my book, this often means they’re responding from recall, not reality (search my archived blogs using the words recall, reality, memory, meaning, and past at  

Here are some examples of emotional reactions:

  • It’s natural when presenting at an out-of-town work conference where you know few people to wonder how your presentation will be received. Most people would feel mild anxiety but wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by wanting acceptance and approval that they can’t think about anything else for weeks before the presentation.
  • It’s within the normal range to be slightly hurt if you’re not invited to a gathering you learn of on Facebook of people from a job you’re leaving. You might be slightly disappointed, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to be enraged or depressed or to call your colleagues up and demand to know why you weren’t asked to join them.
  • Most parents would feel concerned if their child didn’t get into any of the top colleges of their choice. They would feel disappointed and worry that their child might be disappointed as well. But they wouldn’t frame the situation as a disaster or make themselves victims so that their child felt their life was ruined.
  • To have a self-centered parent for whom you’ve sacrificed much sharply complain that you never do anything for them would be annoying to most of us. However, feeling guilty, ashamed and wanting them to approve of you would be over the top. 

Rather than deny feelings that are valid, acknowledge and regulate them. Scale them down when necessary by reality checking with others, self-soothing, and putting them into perspective. That will go a long way toward reducing trips to the cookie jar.



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