THE BLOG
03/19/2013 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2013

Emotional Eating as a Coping Mechanism

Last week we started our discussion of emotional eating as a reaction to the stress response. This week, I want to explore coping tactics.

Psychologists generally break ways of coping into three broad categories: avoidant coping, emotion-focused coping, and problem-focused coping.

Emotional eating usually falls into one (or both) of the first two categories: avoidant or emotion-focused coping. Avoidant coping is just what the name implies -- you avoid dealing with the stressor. Eating when you are stressed so you don't have to deal with the problem is an example of avoidant coping using food. As you might imagine, avoidant coping is rarely effective, as the problem is still going to be there once you've stopped eating.

Emotion-focused coping using food can be equally ineffective. When we engage in emotion-focused coping, we are attempting to make ourselves feel better by addressing the emotions the stressor provoked rather than the stressor itself. So if you get in a fight with your significant other and, instead of talking it out, decide to comfort your hurt feelings by consuming a chocolate cake -- that would be an example of emotion-focused coping using food. Again, not super helpful in this situation. While you might feel better after eating (or not -- you might feel guilty if you eat something you have labeled as "bad" or eaten too much), you still haven't fixed your problem.

You see where I'm going with this, right? Most of the time our problems are within our control to fix, and eating is likely not going to help. Thus, what we should be doing is focusing on how to fix our problems. That's where problem-focused coping comes in. As the name implies, the basic premise of problem-focused coping is this: "Have a problem? Fix it." So if you have a fight with your significant other, wait a little bit to calm down and then go back and talk it out. Don't turn to food to comfort yourself, because that's not actually addressing the problem.

I know, I know. That sounds great, but how can you make that change? I'm going to warn you: It's not going to happen overnight. If you've been turning to food as your primary coping mechanism for 40 years, you can't expect it to go away overnight. I wish it was that simple, but for most of us, it's not.

So what should you do?

Step one (from last week's blog): Reevaluate your appraisal tactics. As I said earlier, most of our problems are fixable and most of them are within our control. So very first thing you need to do is stop. Right when you begin to feel yourself getting stressed out, stop for just one minute. Go through the primary and secondary appraisal tactics we learned last week. So first ask yourself, "Is this going to kill me?" The answer to that question is likely no. Then you move onto the next question: "What can I do about it?" That brings us to...

Step two: Take a deep breath. Do it again. When our bodies are all wound up, it can be very hard to focus on what to do right now to fix your problem. It works best if you can stop that stress response in its tracks by giving your body the cues it needs that the stressor has passed. As deep breathing is counteractive to gearing up to fight or flee, it can be an effective way to calm down enough that you can actually deal with the problem.

Step three: Decide how to cope. Yes, it's up to you. While it may seem like it happens automatically, it only happens this way if you don't give yourself any other option other than to act in a way you've previously dealt with that stressor. In other words, if you've conditioned yourself to eat chocolate cake every time you fight with your spouse, the next time you fight with your spouse, guess what? You're going to find yourself automatically reaching for that chocolate cake. Unless you give your body and mind permission to do something else.

Next week, we'll begin to talk about how you can learn to give yourself permission to cope in a more effective way with your stressors. In the meantime, know that you do have a choice in the matter. And I'm going to teach you how.

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.