Written by Jennie on July 21, 2014.

Comfort eating when stressed?
Why do we do this?


comfort eating when stressed
Why do we end up comfort eating when we’re stressed? Surprisingly, it may have begun when you were a tiny baby. Back then your only way to communicate with your parents was through crying, trying to tell them: ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m grumpy’ and so on. Your parents eventually learnt to distinguish your different cries, but initially at least, one option was breast feeding or giving you a bottle. And so as a tiny baby you associated discomfort being eased with food, even if your distress had nothing to do with being hungry.
During your early childhood, food may sometimes have been given to you as bribe, such as: ‘If you are good, I’ll buy you an ice-cream.’ You will have also associated yummy food at times when life was good, for example on your birthday or at Christmas time.
What has this got to do with comfort eating today? These associations with food have become part of your subconscious programming where food equals both comfort and reward. Your brain is undoubtedly also be wired in a way where eating certain foods lights up the pleasure area of your brain (the dopamine neural pathways). And so when you feel down, sad, angry, disappointed, lonely, stressed or any other negative state, your subconscious will trigger behaviour that it has learnt to do when you feel pain. This behaviour might be to go an buy chocolate, or raid the biscuit tin, or pile food onto your plate or pour a large glass of wine. You will undoubted justify it to yourself saying: ‘I know this isn’t good for me, but it’s been a terrible day…’
But it’s a double whammy back-firing event. Firstly, food can only ease hunger pains: it can’t resolve any other pain. Secondly, because you are eating for reasons other than hunger, there is no ‘I’m full’ off switch. The emptiness you feel inside can’t be filled with food, because the emptiness is in your heart and/or your soul, not your stomach.


One of the best ways to reprogram your old patterns of behaviour is via EFT, however, you can change much of your self-sabotaging by simply becoming more aware of what you’re doing when you’re stressed.
1. When you feel compelled to go and get food to eat, ask yourself: ‘Am I physically hungry?’ A quick way of doing this is to identify whether your hunger is coming from below or above your throat. Physical hunger will appear deep in your belly. Emotional hunger will show-up at the back of your tongue, or in the centre of your head.
2. Breathe deeply into your belly. Do 10 repetitions. The desire to comfort eat is to lessen the feelings of discomfort. Yet, these uncomfortable feelings are often in the land of the Bogey-man. These emotions are far more scary when they are hidden deep in the subconscious. If you breathe deeply, you change the state of your brain activity. You can then ask questions to yourself like: ‘What is that I’m really afraid of?’ and bring the feelings into the light where they are then less intense. See one of my more in-depth articles: Reduce anxiety with belly breathing for more on how this works.
3. Do something that will genuinely help you process or deal with the emotion. If you feel lonely, pick up the phone, or arrange to go and see a friend. If you feel angry, let some of the anger out, by punching a cushion or go to the gym for a work-out. If you are feeling stressed at work, take a pen and paper and ‘free-flow-write’ about everything. This simple act of writing your stuff down is very therapeutic. Feeling sad? Then allow yourself to be sad for half-an-hour. Deep sadness needs to be acknowledged and felt, then it will dissipate. It’s only when we don’t allow ourself to feel this emotion (or any of them) that it lingers.
I know you can change your emotional eating habits: begin today by taking just one step that is different from your usual reaction. You may also wish to read my article: Are you eating mindlessly?
I am always interested to hear your thoughts, views and ideas. Get in touch via the comments box below.