You have two options in regard to emotional eating: you can try to eliminate it altogether or you can try to make better use of it by making emotional eating more conscious. The latter would be consistent with the goals of harm reduction, a humanistic form of psychotherapy that offers a pragmatic risk-reduction approach to managing problematic behaviors.
Three Principles of Mindful Emotional Eating
If becoming a mindful emotional eater is the goal you'd like to pursue, the following three principles will help you transition from mindlessly-reactive emotional eating to mindfully-conscious emotional eating in moderation:
1) when eating to cope with emotions, accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure;
2) when eating to cope with emotions, follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear start and end points;
3) when eating to cope with emotions, remember that emotional eating does not have to mean emotional overeating.
Following these guidelines will help you approach emotional eating with a greater sense of control.
Ritualize Emotional Eating
Habits, routines and rituals offer a soothing, stabilizing sense of predictability and help us feel in control of the moment. Emotional eating episodes are often haphazard and unstructured. To help you rely less on food and more on the activity of eating during your emotional eating episode, I encourage you to ritualize and structure your emotional eating "protocol."
I encourage to always begin by stating to yourself (out loud or internally) that you are making a conscious choice to cope by eating and that in doing so, you are giving yourself a permission to not feel guilty or disgusted with yourself afterwards since emotional eating is, however imperfect, a viable form of self-care. Decide in advance not to judge yourself.
Following this statement of intent and the permission to cope by eating, identify how you feel and what you are trying to cope with. You might follow this by stating your expectations of how you wish to feel after you eat. Then, consciously consider what you will eat and decide on a "dose." Then, with mindfulness of the process, eat.
Take your time to savor and appreciate the flavor of the food as well as the subtle changes in your state of mind and body. Pause to check to if you have attained a desired emotional state; if not, proceed with another serving and check again. When you feel you have attained a desired state (whether you use psychological or somatic/physiological markers for that), allow yourself a realization that you have once again been able to successfully self-soothe with food.
Congratulate yourself on another coping success.
Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time (New Harbinger, 2008) and of "Present Perfect: From Mindless Pursuit of What Should Be to Mindful Acceptance of What Is" (in press, New Harbinger Publications, in stores in July 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit www.eatingthemoment.com and sign up for Pavel Somov's monthly "Mindful-not-Mouthful" Newsletter