Angry Eating

When Jamie came in my office this week, she reported feeling disappointed.  Jamie thought she had kicked her emotional eating habits because, through lots of practice, she became adept at not eating when she was feeling sad or stressed.  This was something that Jamie had struggled with a lot at first because initially she thought she would not be able to handle feeling sad or stressed without turning to food.  Through our work together, Jamie learned that negative emotions are not going to kill her and she can do other things to comfort herself which will not have the end result of jeopardizing her diet and ultimately making her feel worse.  Jamie always gave herself a lot of credit for being able to handle these negative emotions without turning to food by using a multitude of other distracting techniques, like calling her sister or a friend, going for a walk, taking a shower, painting her nails, or listening to relaxing music. 

Yesterday evening, however, Jamie was out with a friend for dinner and midway through she got a phone call from her mother who made her angry and they ended up getting into a fight.  Jamie hung up the phone, still feeling mad.  Even though she’d almost finished the amount of food she had carefully portioned off from her plate that she would eat at dinner (and was planning to bring the rest home for lunch the next day), Jamie told me that she then proceeded to eat almost everything that was left on her plate, seemingly without noticing what she was doing.  It wasn’t until Jamie looked down at her near-empty plate that she realized she had just engaged in emotional eating, but this time it was in response to anger, not sadness or stress and felt discouraged.  I asked Jamie what she did after she realized this and Jamie reported that she left the restaurant, took a walk with her friend, and then called her mother to work the situation out.  I then asked Jamie if she had proceeded to order dessert at the restaurant or had gone home and eaten whatever was in her house.  In an almost puzzled fashion, Jamie answered, “of course not.”  I recognized what was going on here –Jamie was only focusing on the one mistake she had made that night and was not seeing all the multitude of great things she had done immediately after. 

I asked Jamie what she might have done a few years ago when she felt angry or worked up like that and she reported that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more food to soothe herself.  I also asked Jamie what she would have done  in a situation in which she made an eating mistake and Jamie acknowledged that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more the rest of the night, thinking she had blown it.  Jamie and I discussed how very differently she handled this situation and all of the important things that she deserved credit for.  Jamie was able to see that she deserved credit for:

  1. Once she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she did not catastrophize and continue to eat out of hand the rest of the night
  2. After dinner she took a walk to calm herself down instead of turning to more food
  3. She got problem-solving oriented and called her mom to work out the problem
  4. She was able to identify what was going on – that she was eating because she was angry – and respond to sabotaging thoughts that were urging her to keep eating
  5. She was ready to learn from the situation and would be more aware of all forms of emotional eating in the future

I pointed out to Jamie what I point out to all of my dieters: that ALL dieters and maintainers make mistakes, they are just able to recover from them right away.  Jamie and I discussed the fact that, without even realizing it, this is exactly what Jamie did because as soon as she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she put the brakes on eating right away.  We also talked about the fact that instead of feeling good about this situation and how she had proved to herself that she can recover right away, Jamie was actually making herself feel worse by only focusing on the one thing she did wrong, instead of the 20 positive things she did right after.  Jamie and I decided that as part of her homework this week, she would start focusing more on giving herself credit for all the positive things she did, both big and small.

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