Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: 7 Tactics to Avoid Emotional Eating

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.


“Food is my drug of choice.”

I often hear that phrase while working with people who struggle to lose weight. Using food to cope with problems usually leads to later feelings of disappointment, anxiety, and even self-loathing. The cycle of “feel stressed, overeat, feel bad, overeat again” may continue for years and even become a way of life. The only way to break this cycle is by finding other, more productive, less harmful, ways to deal with emotional issues. Later I’ll discuss how modifying thoughts and beliefs can prevent us from feeling overwhelmed. But for now, let’s assume you’re already feeling pressured, threatened, sad, angry, anxious, or browbeaten. How can you cope?

First, consider a list of healthy, pleasurable activities. Using a delightful distraction like reading, crocheting, or working on a car remodel can provide temporary relief similar to the comfort and distraction you get from food. Adding to your list of alternative activities may help you with eating issues. Consider new hobbies you’ll enjoy—things you’ve always wanted to try. Don’t let your weight stand in the way of trying something new.

These activities promote relaxation and offer temporary relief. But some situations, especially ongoing sources of discontent, are best handled when we process the stress rather than distract ourselves from it. Developing coping mechanisms beyond food is the best way to find     peace in spite of undesirable feelings and events. Distractions only scratch the surface of our discontent, like applying a small Band-Aid to a deep cut. Effective emotion-focused coping often requires deeper processing of what’s happening. That includes learning to tell which problems we can solve, versus problems we need to live with for a while.

I admit, coping strategies that aren’t distractions may not be enjoyable in themselves, because you’re facing problems instead of avoiding emotional pain. Creating a relaxed environment for coping activities will help you glean as much immediate contentment from them as possible.

1. Journaling

Journaling has become a wildly popular activity in our culture. Your journal can be a friend who always listens and never says hurtful things. Writing in those pages can help you explore what lies behind feelings such as fear, anger, and pain. Getting specific about things that bother you can help erase superficial worry and uncover more deep-seated issues. With complete privacy, you can explore the past, let go of it, and begin planning for the future. No one has to see your irrational tirades or words that could hurt others. You can edit, keep those pages, or throw them away. Later you might re-read the journal and notice your own faulty reasoning.

But if a journal is only a punching bag of sorts where you vent anger, frustration, and pain, it may not live up to its potential for helping you through stressful times. The goal of journaling is to find meaning, clarity, and eventually peace. Ending some entries by completing statements such as:

“something helpful I’m learning is . . .”

“this probably happened because . . .”

“I want to use this experience to . . .”

“I can start letting go of this because . . .”

“I will be kind to myself because . . .”

. . .can make journaling more therapeutic. You might also finish a painful entry by redirecting your thoughts to the most meaningful parts of your life—things that bring joy, things you’re proud of, and things you look forward to doing.

In addition to your regular journal, keeping a special gratitude journal can direct your thoughts away from negativity and toward the things you’re most thankful for. Writing in detail about people who’ve blessed our lives, possessions we’re grateful for, and experiences that have helped us grow can be uplifting and get us through tough times.

2. Talking to Others

As an alternative to emotional eating, relying on close friends or family members who are good listeners and rational responders can help you deal with stress. Sometimes a quick, supportive phone call or text message can be enough to pull you through a difficult moment. However, keep in mind that friendship and family relationships are two-way streets. If you feel your conversations are burdening others, seek professional help. Therapists not only listen, but can guide you to develop coping skills and manage life in a healthier manner.

3. Religious-based Coping

Although religious practices and beliefs vary a great deal, most people worldwide believe in God or a higher power. The concept of an all-knowing, ever present, loving God is beyond our ability to fully grasp. This can be frustrating and confusing at times, yet accepting this belief can give us a great sense of peace.

When I was a child my family often took summer trips to the beach, which was a 14-hour drive when we were “driving straight through” and “making good time.” Sometimes we left home at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. so we could check into our hotel in the afternoon. On the way back home we usually left around noon and arrived home a few hours before sunrise. Although my dad drove for many hours through mountains, heavy thunderstorms, and congested traffic, I never worried about safely arriving. I knew Dad would get us there. With no worries at all, I fell asleep alongside my brother and sister — who, by the way, always took more than her fair share of the large back seat in our Chrysler New Yorker. If you believe in an all-powerful God who has your best interests in mind, then you can relate to the peacefulness I felt while riding in our car.

An old saying tells us, “God can move mountains, but bring your shovel.” This is true most of the time. However, sometimes we simply need to wait and trust that, although life brings unexpected and painful turns, we will be okay in the end, even if the pathway is a journey we wouldn’t have chosen. In order to wait more effectively, we can pray, meditate, read faith-based literature, attend services, and socialize with others who remind us to embrace the idea that in the end something helpful will result from our difficult situation.

4. Exercise

Physical activity can relieve anxiety as well as treat and prevent depression. Studies even suggest regular physical activity compares in effectiveness to medications used to treat some mood disorders.

Combining activity with something else you find enjoyable can also be an effective coping strategy. Walking or working out with a friend, taking a group fitness class, walking your dog, or finding   a scenic place to ride a bike or walk can enhance your experience and help you deal with life difficulties. On the other hand, don’t underestimate the benefits found in the solitude of exercise. Even walking on a treadmill in a dark basement can be a time of reflection that leaves you more energized and able to think and solve problems more effectively.

5. Breathing

When we’re upset about something, focusing on our breathing is the simplest thing we can do to calm ourselves. Feeling stressed causes us take shallow, rapid breaths as the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in. You’ll also notice a tendency to clench your jaw, furrow your brow, and tense your shoulders. This is the body’s automatic response to a threat, whether the threat is physical or emotional. When you’re facing an emotional situation, do you really need to run or fight? Instead, you probably want to relax and calm down. Instead of using food to feel better, try focusing on a simple technique you can do anywhere: Deep breathing. This diaphragmatic/belly breathing can slow the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and calm your nerves. Here’s how to do it: Let your abdomen expand as you deeply inhale. Take the air in through your nose and release it slowly through pursed lips, while visualizing your muscles relaxing. You might also focus on accepting healing light as you inhale and releasing tension with each exhale. For better results, combine this with soothing music, yoga, or other relaxation activities.

6. Helping Others

When you’re dealing with issues that won’t go away overnight, consider helping other people with their problems. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it works. No matter what our circumstance, we can usually find others who are worse off. Feeding the homeless, volunteering at a women’s shelter, or assisting at a school, church, or hospital can take you away from your own issues and give you a sense of purpose. Plus, you’ll meet new people and possibly make friends, while making the world a better place.

Although helping others won’t erase your problems, it may give you a different perspective. When I help transport someone in a wheelchair it’s easier for me to accept the moderate amount of pain in my arthritic joints. When I help families of children with cognitive or physical limitations, my own children’s meltdowns are put into perspective. Providing a backpack with school supplies for a child of an inner-city family reminds me of how fortunate I truly am.

7. Medication

For some people, taking medication is a helpful strategy for coping with stress and psychological conditions. Although you may want to try other strategies first, medication has a place for treating anxiety, depression, and mental illness. You shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed if your doctor prescribes something to help. However, don’t forget that medication is never a substitute for healthy coping; rather, it should be used to make healthy coping easier.