03/05/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Coping With Emotional Eating

In last week's blog, I talked about the appeals I am getting from young women who are afraid to eat. This week I am turning the tables, so to speak, to discuss another phenomenon that I seem to get quite a few comments and questions about as well: emotional eating.

Emotional eating seems to be almost a loaded phrase in our society today. While many of us eat for non-hunger related reasons at some point in our lives, diagnoses of emotional eating are harder to pinpoint. However, psychologists are reporting a growing trend in cases of emotional eating and are connecting it with our growing obesity rates. For example, studies suggest that individuals who are overweight and obese may be more likely than normal weight people to use food as a coping mechanism. In fact, Dr. Amy Ozier presents an interesting model of the cycle of emotional eating, such that Emotion and Stress-Related Eating results from inaccurate Appraisal of Outside Stressors and Influences and inaccurate Appraisal and Ability of Resources to Cope.

So the question becomes, if you find yourself eating for emotion- or stress-related reasons, how can you better appraise your own abilities to cope with and actually effectively cope with your stressors? This post will mark the first in a series of posts on stress, appraisal and emotional eating in an effort to help you cope in more effective ways than by eating.

We've got to start somewhere, so let's start with the emotion- and stress-related eating itself. When someone tells me they're an emotional eater, I ask three questions:

  1. When do you emotionally eat? Is there a time of day that it strikes? For most people, the answer seems to be afternoon and evening. Although some people report nighttime eating -- they will actually wake up and go eat in the middle of the night.
  2. What do you eat? Emotional eaters tend to crave one of four things in my experience: high fat foods (e.g., Fried chicken, Sausage, Hot dog, Fried fish, Bacon, Steak), Sweets (e.g., Cake, Cinnamon Rolls, Ice cream, Cookies, Chocolate, Donuts, Candy, Brownies), Complex Carbohydrates (e.g., Sandwich bread, Rice, Biscuits, Pasta, Pancakes or Waffles, Rolls, Cereal), or Fast Food (e.g., Pizza, French fries, Hamburger, Chips). Sweets and Carbs seem to top that list, as do a combination of Sweet and Fat (e.g., Oreos).
  3. Why do you emotional eat? What emotion actually triggered the episode? Was it boredom, anger, shame, fear, guilt, loneliness, etc.? The answer to this question seems to vary widely for my readers, but shame and guilt seem to come up quite often as do reports of using emotional eating as a form of punishment.

In answer to that last question, a lot of people just say, "I eat when I'm stressed." Stress itself is not actually an emotion; it's a physiological response. However, emotions are often associated with the stress process. So let's chat for a minute about stress.

When we encounter a potential stressor, be it an upcoming presentation at work, a fight with our significant other, or our fear that we'll lose control and eat too much, our bodies kick into overdrive. For more on the biology behind this, check out my earlier post on the stress response.

Here's the real problem. Your body doesn't know the difference between a "real" (e.g., I am about to get mauled by a bear) and perceived (e.g., no one will love me if I eat this ice cream) stressor.
This is where the process of appraisal becomes so critically important. So let's jump back to Dr. Ozier's representation of emotion- and stress-related eating. According to Dr. Ozier, emotional eating is triggered by: 1) Appraisal of outside stressors and influences and 2) Appraisal and ability of resources to cope.

So what is this appraisal thing, anyway? Your appraisal of a situation is your evaluation of the situation and your ability to deal with it. We tend to break this into two parts:

  1. Primary appraisal: Primary appraisal is your evaluation of the significance of the stressor. In other words, "Is this going to kill me? Will I die if _____ occurs?"
  2. Secondary appraisal : Secondary appraisal is your evaluation of your ability to control and/or cope with the stressor. In other words, "What can I do about? Is there anything I can do to make _____ go away?"

So I think what Dr. Ozier is saying is that people who rely on emotional eating are not being realistic in their primary and secondary appraisal process. This could mean one of two things. Let's say you are emotionally eating because you're in the middle of a divorce. When the appraisal process goes awry, one of two things has happened. Either, your primary appraisal of the stressor is sending you into a full blown panic (e.g., I am going to die if he divorces me) or your secondary appraisal of the stressor has you believing you cannot deal with the situation (e.g., I may not die if he divorces me, but I cannot deal with it either).

So the first thing you need to do if you are an emotional eater is to re-evaluate your appraisal tactics. First and foremost, rarely should our primary appraisal mechanisms be kicking us into danger mode, as there are very few situations these days where our lives are literally on the line. If you do believe you are in actual physical danger from your stressor, please seek help from your local police or sheriff's office or crisis hotline.

For most of the people I help, the secondary appraisal system is what has gone awry. That is, they know their problems won't kill them, but they feel so overwhelmed and stuck that they don't know what to do to get out of the situation. That's where I come in.

Next week, we'll begin to talk about effective coping strategies. In the meantime, you may be interested in learning more about my DO or DIET campaign to end emotional eating and stop the diet mentality for good.

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on eating disorders, click here.

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