I try to keep this blog a positive and uplifting space. So many of us are dealing with enough already or are easily triggered. So, please know that this post touches on some potentially triggering topics such as violence, illness, and feeling unsafe.
The truth about trauma and emotional eating
This post has been in my planner for over a month now. Originally, I’d planned to collect advice, insights, and actions steps on how to stop using food to cope with feeling vulnerable or unsafe.
I still think that’s totally valid and useful. But, things have changed.
In the interest of honesty, authenticity, and just keeping this stuff real in what’s often an environment dominated by perfect Instagram salad photos and idealized lifestyles that’ll mean you “never overeat or emotionally eat again”… here’s some truth.
Here’s the truth:
Sometimes food helps.
Emotional eating isn’t always something to be avoided. You turn to food for a reason: because it’s fast, easy, and short-term effective. It’s one tool amongst many others and the problems only start when you’re using food
- as your only coping strategy,
- as a long-term solution,
- and you have a problem with it.
I don’t mean to confuse you by muddling the clear lines you’ve drawn around your emotional eating and labeled “bad”, but not all emotional eating is a problem. Sometimes it’s serving a very real and immediate purpose and helping you in ways that other strategies may not.
Should it be your only long-term coping strategy?
Should you feel bad about using it strategically during times of need?
Why I’m telling you this
Ok, super real time.
I live in Stockholm. There was recently a terror attack in the city center and I was there. As in, right there.
I’m not going to go into it, but obviously, after this, my experiences of feeling unsafe and vulnerable have changed. As have some of the ways I interact with my emotional eating urges.
This is hard to write about.
I am so aware of the suffering and pain around these issues, and my topic feels insultingly small and inconsequential in comparison. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to say:
Sometimes there are bigger issues, and more important things to do, than try to control your eating.
Trauma and emotional eating
Sometimes women ask for my help with trauma and emotional eating, saying things like (and I’m WAY paraphrasing here):
- My mum just died and I can’t stop eating. How do I control it?
- My husband has just been diagnosed with cancer and I’m eating way too much. How do I stop?
- I’ve just had my third miscarriage and all I want is cake all the time. What do I do?
What do you do? How do you stop?
You don’t. You’ve got way more going on than cake cravings.
Emotional eating is a symptom.
If you’ve been through something, or are going through something right now, don’t add to it by beating yourself up over what you’re eating. Take comfort and relief where you can find it.
Certainly, look for and use as many healthful and nourishing coping strategies as you can – it’s definitely possible to crowd out emotional eating and make it obsolete. But don’t add to your pain, guilt, or grief by removing comfort from your life and then standing around the empty hole inside yourself trying to find something to fill it with.
4 effective non-food tools
Here are 4 things you can do when you’re feeling scared, unsafe, threatened, or vulnerable because of things outside your control. Don’t focus on taking foods away from yourself, but instead look at adding in:
This one can be hard. Especially if you’re an introvert.
Or really private.
Or very independent.
(I can definitely relate).
It can be incredibly difficult to reach out and connect with other people when you’re going through trauma, fear, guilt, and sadness. You’ll probably feel like your problems aren’t worth their time, feel scared they’ll minimize your struggle or judge you, and worry about upsetting them.
But one of the most powerful questions my therapist ever asked me was “How would you feel if your friend was going through something?”. My immediate reply was that I’d want to know and help. My therapist simply suggested that I give my friends and family the chance to be there for me when I needed them, too.
So give your people a chance to support you – research repeatedly shows it’s one of the most profound coping strategies you can practice (which is probably why it’s so damn hard).
This does not mean you have to go around feeling guilty because “you’ve got so much to be thankful for”, or “things could be so much worse”. The point isn’t to overwhelm or cover up the trauma or pain with gratitude, but to provide a gentle counterpoint.
I’ve been doing this at night before going to sleep.
Emotions are extremely ‘head-focussed’. It’s like you end up spending so much time feeling, analyzing, imagining, re-living, and what-if-ing that you forget you have a body. Getting back in your body is healthy and a great coping skill to use.
I’ve been too nervous to go outside alone for a few days. The thought of having to walk across a bridge (I live on a smallish island) with moving traffic and no room to move has just been too far out of my comfort zone. I know this will pass, but in the meantime, I’ve been doing yoga indoors as a way to get out of my head and into my body for some movement.
I recommend guided meditation – and I especially recommend anything by Jason Stephenson. Having someone else tell you what to think for a while is a huge relief. I’ve had to focus hard on the words and imagery to stop the mental replays and ‘what ifs’, but it gets easier and easier. Doing this in the early evening has helped me deal with my biggest emotional eating danger-zone: after dinner.
The bottom line
Be gentle with yourself and focus on what you can bring into your life instead of what you want to shut out.
And if you’re struggling with trauma and emotional eating, or anything, and it feels like too much, find a therapist. Online, in person, whatever works, but getting professional help when you need it is one of the biggest acts of self-care you can gift yourself with.
This post was really difficult to write and I’ve tried to be as careful as possible while also being as open as I can. Thank you for being here, thank you for being you, and whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone.