Sunday 20 October 2019

Are you an emotional eater? We talk to an expert about symptoms, triggers and treatment

Emotional eating is sometimes dismissed as a lack of self-control or an indulgent habit but it’s actually a manifestation of deeper psychological issues.

This type of behaviour can be an unconscious response to other problems and it can negatively impact on your physical, psychological and emotional health. We spoke to Dublin-based clinical hypnotherapist, Fiona Brennan, to find out how to recognise the symptoms of emotional eating and how you can kick the habit.

If you’re wondering if you’re an emotional eater, the first thing you need to do is understand what emotional eating actually is.

“Emotional eating is when a person eats to satisfy an unwanted negative emotion rather than genuine hunger,” explains Fiona. “They may not even be consciously aware of their behaviour which is where the problem lies; they are in an unfortunate, subconscious habit that is self-destructive both mentally and physically.”

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Fiona Brennan

Spotting the warning signs

Emotional eating can manifest itself in both physical and mental ways, even if the physical act of eating may be the most obvious symptom.

“Mentally, feelings of stress, anxiety and being overwhelmed are the clearest indicators that a person needs to deal with their emotional health rather than to turn to food to comfort themselves. Physically it can result in weight gain, feeling bloated and bad digestion, which can present itself as IBS and low energy levels.”

We all turn to food for comfort at certain times and there is a complex relationship between physical and mental satisfaction when it comes to food. The origins of comfort eating are psychological and can be traced back to our formative experiences.

“The theory of comfort eating, which Freud referred to as ‘oral regression,’ commences in infancy when a baby is looking to be comforted,” explains Fiona. “Often their mother or care giver will give them a bottle or soother and endorphins are released through the sucking motion which soothes the baby.

“This is what a baby needs but at this critical stage in development the subconscious mind starts to confuse love with food and, years later when feeling anxious, will turn to food for love and comfort, which of course, it cannot provide.”

This can manifest itself in patterns of behaviour that can have severe repercussions for sufferers. It can be hard for people to break out of this vicious cycle as the behaviour informs their attitudes and vice versa. 

“The most serious impact it has is on the person’s self-esteem and confidence levels. People who do not ‘love’ their bodies tend not to look after themselves well. A vicious circle then originates; eating occurs when unhappiness arises and is then followed by feeling bad for eating too much and on and on this goes...

“Emotional eaters often suffer from extensive feelings of guilt and spend a lot of mental energy on feeling bad about themselves. I see this all the time with the most beautiful people who are very unhappy with themselves. They feel inadequate and hold strong negative beliefs about themselves. This has an impact on their relationships, careers and, above all, their ability to live a peaceful and happy life.

So what are the common triggers that lead to emotional eating?

“The triggers often come in the form of seeking a reward which is a strong component of habits,” says Fiona. “We are reward-seeking creatures, for example, a person who has been working all week will ‘reward’ themselves by binge eating at the weekend.”

Recognising the seriousness of emotional eating

Fiona notes that there are many misconceptions around emotional eating. It’s easy for people to dismiss emotional eating as laziness, gluttony or something that isn’t really that serious. That type of attitude fails to appreciate the deep-seated motivations and complicated psychological factors involved.

“It is a deeply ingrained habit that is not their fault. We need to replace pressure and judgement with love and compassion. Usually the emotional eater is very hard on themselves which is what perpetuates the issue.”

The good news is that it can be treated. Fiona has worked with many emotional eaters and helped them to address both the causes of their behaviour and the symptoms. This isn’t a case of finding a quick fix – the underlying issues need to be analysed and worked on.  

“The good news is there is so much that can be done and I have helped many people break this unfortunate habit,” says Fiona. “My approach is to take the attention away from obsessing over food and weight and start to deal with the real emotional issues. This takes courage but it is the only thing that will have a long term sustainable positive impact.”

So what should people do if they think a partner, friend or family member might be an emotional eater? Fiona says that it is difficult to change a person’s behaviour until they themselves are ready to effect change.

“With the best will in the world, family members and friends cannot help a person until that person is genuinely ready. I would suggest simply listening to them, removing junk food from the house and maintaining healthy diet yourself can help. We are very influenced by the people around us and this may encourage the person to also choose more healthy, moderate options.”

Fiona has enjoyed a high success rate when treating clients with hypnotherapy. Her patients work on their motivations and make conscious life choices to bring about change.

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Emotional eating can impact on people's mental and physical health

“The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and then to accept it,” Fiona says. “This is the hardest part as the brain is programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. The transformation arises when the person realises that emotional eating is not a pleasure or a reward but that feeling healthy, confident and loving yourself is.”

She admits that some patients are still nervous about trying out hypnotherapy but the key is to make them feel relaxed and comfortable. An in-depth consultation session at the start of the process helps to set people at ease.

“Hypnotherapy is a powerful tool that simply allows the conscious, analytical mind to soften and the subconscious to open up to the positive suggestions that encourage the client to let go of the old behaviour and replace it with something that truly rewards them, for example, replacing binge eating chocolate with doing a yoga class.”

For people unfamiliar with hypnotherapy, it can seem like something of an esoteric practice. The reality is it’s a discipline that is much more scientific than they might suspect.

“It is akin to a guided meditation, nothing weird or mystical,” Fiona explains. “It’s a very relaxing experience that offers the client peace from racing thoughts. It helps to reprogramme the physical structure of the brain by a process known as neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability to change its neural networks through the power of thought and imagination which is at the heart of hypnotherapy.”

For anyone looking to find out more, Fiona will be discussing emotional eating when she appears at the upcoming Vitality Expo 2018. Her talk will be part of a packed schedule of events featuring expert speakers in the RDS on September 8 and 9. So what can people expect from the talk?

“It’s going to be very special as I’ll be sharing the stage with the talented nutritional therapist, Elsa Jones. Together we tackle both the physical and psychological aspects of emotional eating and share our experience in a practical way with top tips to break the habit. We will also be sharing our ‘Love Yourself Slim’ hypnotherapy audio with everyone in the audience.

“Remember that positive change is possible and that food can be one of the great pleasures in life without being a catalyst for guilt and emotional eating,” she adds.

Vitality Expo 2018, Ireland’s largest natural health and wellbeing event, will take place in Dublin’s RDS on September 8 and 9. Tickets available now on the website. U12s go free.

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