Emotional eating, stress eating, binge eating. All these names point to one horrible habit: compulsive eating. To clarify, it’s eating as a way to deal with your problems. My love and hate relationship with emotional eating started after my family immigrated to the U.S. I was six years old and spoke no English. My only knowledge of America came from Sesame Street and Dallas (my father was a fan). It was a stressful time, to say the least.
Within the utter chaos of my new life, there were two saving graces: television and food. My parents ran a dry cleaner 12 hours a day, leaving me and brother to fend for ourselves six days a week. In Korea, my mother had been home to monitor our eating and TV watching. But now, she was home just long enough to wake us up for school. She and my father would return around 8 PM, too tired to care about what we did or ate. It wasn’t because they didn’t love us. They were just struggling with their own stress and depression, resulting from physical exhaustion and money woes.
Back then, food was my friend. It was my mother, father and the sibling I wish I had. Food didn’t judge me or yell at me or hit me. I would sit with food in front of the TV after school, watching Different Strokes and Facts of Life. Before I knew it, an entire bag of potato chips would be gone, washed down with two cokes. I’d follow it up with a couple of ice cream bars, maybe a Twinkie or two.
It sounds absolutely disgusting when I look back on it. So why did it feel so good back then? According to science, our brain releases “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin when we binge. Whether it’s emotional eating, shopping or drinking, binging feels fantastic.
It makes sense, considering the bullying I had to deal with from kids who thought I was stupid. I thought I was stupid as well, since I couldn’t understand anything in class. Afterwards, I came home to a dingy, roach-infested apartment. I had two choices: escape into the feel-good world of sitcoms and junk food, or fight with my brother.
A variation of option #1 was listening to the radio while binging. But music didn’t provide quite the same form of “escape”. For a few hours a day, I could pretend I lived in a NYC penthouse on Park Avenue. I was a student at Eastland, living with my friends and being cared for by the always available, ever-patient Mrs. Garrett.
In short, food was something to look forward to. Psychologist Jennifer Kromberg wrote about this in her article “Emotional Eating? 5 Reasons You Can’t Stop“. When asked why they binged, many of her patients admitted that food was the only thing they had to look forward to. Finding healthy rewards is the logical solution, but it’s not that simple. Over time, food has the same effect on the brain as drugs or alcohol. Nothing else makes you feel as good, so you keep turning back to it again and again.
According to Kromberg, dealing with emotional eating is a two step process. First, find other rewards, but accept that they will not be as pleasurable as food. Healthy ways to manage stress involve work and self-examination, the very opposite of the escapism provided by binge eating. Second, let yourself experience difficult feelings rather than avoiding them. It may not change anything, but it can prevent you from turning to unhealthy ways to deal with stress.
This advice really hit home with me, because I was the Usain Bolt of stress avoidance. Often, I ran deep inside myself to bury the pain. But with food — I was like Whitney Houston in the “Run to You” video. At first, food was my family. As I advanced into my teens, food became my first, and most enduring love. To this day, food is the first thing I think about when I feel sad or mad. Or when I just want to be bad, because I always had to be good.
Running to food, however, is like hooking up with an ex when your marriage hits a rough patch. Communicating with your spouse and working on your problems is the right thing to do. Yet, it’s so tempting to run away to someone, or something, that just feels good. I did this more times than I care to admit, both with food and men. It took me a long time to realize that my escapism with food defined my approach to relationships. In essence, one addiction fed into another, and both were killing me from the inside out.
Resisting the urge to eat your feelings is a lot like remembering why you left your ex in the first place. Yes, there were plenty of good times. But they were always followed by feelings of emptiness, regret, shame and guilt. So you go back to them again in order to calm those bad feelings, and the cycle repeats itself. This is the vicious cycle of emotional eating. It’s also one of the textbook definitions of a toxic relationship.
Acknowledging this to myself was painful. It made me feel stupid and lost all over again. Why do I keep going back to it, even when I know better? Why do I not love myself enough to stop? These were agonizing questions, but they needed to be asked. The answers have changed throughout the years, as I encounter new sources of stress. For me, Ashtanga yoga has been a great source of help. Leaving a bad marriage and changing careers has made a world of difference. And now, writing for this blog and sharing my story with you — that’s another positive way to deal with stress.
Nowadays, emotional eating and me are good. It’s still my first love, but that doesn’t mean I can’t move onto others. I can remember the good times, and face the overwhelming urge to run back to it when life gets crazy. Sometimes, I give in and indulge in a slice of cake or a bowl of ice cream. But now, I don’t beat myself up over it and bury the shame with even more food. So yes, emotional eating — you and me are good. Sometimes I’m mad at you, sometimes I miss you like crazy. But I’m finally happy and healthy in my relationship with food.
-Rose Scott is the Editor-in-Chief of trystressmanagement.com. By sharing her story, she hopes to encourage others who struggle with unhealthy coping methods for stress.