• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

Addressing Emotional Eating



A number of the people I see complain of excess body weight due to over-eating. Sometimes they eat because of their desire to escape emotional pain, boredom, anxiety, or to distract themselves from something in their lives that bothers them. This type of eating is sometimes called emotional eating, and others refer to it as compulsive eating. Compulsive eating is feeling as though one does not have control over how much, when or what a person eats. I have seen people with trauma histories especially engage in this type of eating. It can be very harmful physically, contributing to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The resultant shame, frustration, and self-loathing can contribute to emotional disease as well.

Some approaches that have been developed to address emotional eating include mindfulness-based approaches, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, spiritual approaches, and hypnosis.

Mindfulness-Based Approaches

Lynn Rossy, PhD wrote The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, which encourages people to apply mindfulness to the act of eating. When a person eats compulsively or emotionally, they might not even be really paying attention to what they eat. They might instead eat the food frenetically, quickly, and almost anxiously. It might be an attempt to cover up a feeling that they are keen to ignore or flee. Dr. Rossy urges people to slow down and pay close attention to the full experience of what they eat. This means slowly and consciously chewing it, feeling the texture of it, and experiencing the taste and smell of it. She also recommends that people stop about midway through their meal and check in with their bodies. This allows a person to gauge whether they are full, satisfied, or still hungry. Sometimes in doing this, a person realizes that they are full long before the plate is clean.

I am reminded of an exercise that is at the beginning of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, in which members of the group are given a raisin and are asked to chew it slowly in the same manner. This American culture is so focused on getting things done efficiently, multi-tasking and rushing through to completion, that the idea of slowing down and being present is anathema. However, more people are starting to notice the need for mindfulness-based approaches to living in general.

I believe that a strong component to any successful behavioral modification program is to learn how to tolerate negative feeling states and sit through them, and mindfulness can be a very effective tool for that. Just look at Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for people with self-destructive, impulsive behaviors and Borderline Personality Disorder clients. She can see how broadening the window of affect tolerance can be useful in addressing compulsive and impulsive negative behaviors. Of course, she combines mindfulness-based approaches with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques to bolster effectiveness.

Cognitive Behavioral Approaches

Dr. Christopher Fairburn penned Overcoming Binge Eating, 2nd Edition which is a self-help program for binge eaters based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Psychoeducation, or information about the physical and psychological experiences and causes of binge eating, make up the first part of the book. Then it identifies and challenges negative thinking and behaviors associated with binge eating. It also helps people address their self-image problems. Some of the people who have reviewed it on Amazon.com say that this book is more geared towards people with Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa who binge-eat and then purge using laxatives, exercise, or vomiting. There are other people who have Binge Eating Disorder who over-eat or eat emotionally and do not purge. They clearly need help as well.

I see a clear need to be informed about one’s condition and think that being able to identify alternatives to binge eating is very important. However, I am not clear whether the emotional aspect of binge eating gets addressed with CBT. Like many other psychological treatment approaches, not everyone responds equally well; what works for one person may not work for another. With other addictions such as nicotine, drugs and alcohol, CBT can be effective in stopping the use and maintaining abstinence. However, one of the reasons that people sometimes find 12 step programs helpful is that they address the spiritual aspects of compulsive and/or addictive behaviors.

Spiritual Approaches

Two of the approaches that I have seen to Binge Eating Disorder and emotional eating are Geneen Roth’s books, like Why Weight, When Food is Love, and Breaking Free from Emotional Eating; and Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Weight Loss.

Geneen Roth’s approach is more autobiographical and she encourages people to be curious, kind and compassionate to themselves, when exploring their food issues. She addresses psychological aspects of binge eating as well as spiritual concepts like self-forgiveness.

Marianne Williamson’s work is based on the psycho-spiritual program, A Course in Miracles. Her book conceives as being overweight as a spiritual and emotional armor that we create to protect ourselves from experiences that we don’t want to acknowledge, feel or think bout. She encourages people to explore their resistances to enjoying life through writing exercises and self-observation. People who are comfortable with the concept of God and religious terminology could find this helpful, but those who are atheistic or agnostic might not accept the spiritual words used throughout.

Both the spiritual approaches listed here seem to foster greater focus on the internal experience of binge-eating and emotional eating, which seems quite valuable for recovery. Another option is to explore Overeaters Anonymous meetings, which can be found online in a nearby city. The 12 step programs also talk about surrendering that which we cannot handle ourselves to a higher power, which some people may find offensive based on their aversion to religion. OA also has people work on “steps” toward recovery that require self-reflection and knowing the inner self more. The search within is also a theme in hypnosis.

Hypnotic Approaches

Hypnosis can be very helpful for bypassing the negative beliefs that tell people that they cannot achieve what they desire, and the shame that comes from being unable to resist compulsive urges. Unfortunately, many people who binge eat, are overweight, or who eat emotionally already know how to eat healthy and exercise. They know about nutrition, and all the other things they’re “supposed to know.” They have often tried various diets, all to no avail, and they usually wind up feeling like failures because they can’t seem to get with the program the other people seem to be able to. Hypnosis can create a motivation for change that has nothing to do with what doctors tell a person to do, or one’s spouse, or any other “authority figure” in their lives.

Hypnotic techniques can help a person decide for themselves what is right for them, which is more empowering than being told what to do by someone else. In a state of heightened suggestibility, with defenses suspended momentarily, a clinical hypnotist can take a person back to the first time they started overeating. This can address the emotional engine that keeps the person eating compulsively and heal that wound so that the need to distract, avoid and flee those feelings is no longer there.

This has been just an overview of some approaches to addressing emotional eating and Binge Eating Disorder. I hope that it has given the reader different options and ideas for how he or she might wish to handle this problem for themselves.

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Lisa S. Larsen, Psy.D.

(CA Lic. #PSY19046)

3123 West Avenue L-8

Lancaster, CA  93536

661-233-6771

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