Breaking The Pattern Of Emotional Eating

We all know the long term costs to our health and self esteem if we have a pattern of emotional eating, this term refers to eating for reasons other than hunger.

To begin the process of stopping a pattern of emotional eating,  we first need to notice what preceeds the desire to eat.

Make a list of your triggers to eat (other than hunger),  ie feeling stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, bored, irritated,etc. Also make a list of any rewards, such as eating to feel comforted, distracted,  loved,  cared for, for example.

Once you have your list, you now have valuable information as to why you engage in emotional eating.

Emotional eating is a conditioned response to a trigger or to seeking a reward. Here is an example from a lady I worked with who engaged in emotional eating, this pattern had led to weight gain  and self esteem issues.

Lynn “So what is the behaviour you want to stop?”

Sandy.“I want to stop eating chocolate and cake most evenings, because I’m overweight, and feel generally unwell”.

Lynn.” Ok, so what preceeds the eating?, are you aware of what the triggers are?”

Sandy.“Its usually when I feel bored, and I want a distraction”.

Lynn.“Ok, so feeling bored is the trigger, and eating provides a temporary pleasurable distraction from feeling bored,  is that right?”

Sandy.“Yes, that’s it”, but afterwards I feel awful, I feel guilty and weak willed”.

Lynn.“So you recognise that in the moment it may give you a temporary distraction,  but long term you know it’s not a solution?”

Sandy.“Yes, that’s it, but it has felt like a compulsion to eat”.

Lynn.“Yes,  that’s because it has become a conditioned response when you feel bored. Can you remember when you first began the pattern of eating cake etc when you were bored?”

Sandy. “When I was young, I grew up in a really quiet village where there were no kids my age, I can remember stealing cookies or cake to take to my room at night, I think I was just sooo bored and lonely,  it provided a bit of excitement!”

Lynn.” So you can see back then that cookies were providing a distraction from the boredom that you felt, albeit temporarily. Then each time you felt bored, it would trigger the desire to eat cake or cookies.So in other words  you became conditioned to associate eating cake or cookies as a distraction from boredom”?

Emotional states become conditioned

Sandy. “Yes, I can see how unconsciously I created that link between avoiding boredom and eating cookies.”

Lynn.” Yes, so eating cookies was a means of getting something, it wasnt the cookies you really wanted, what was it?”

Sandy.“I wanted relief from the horrible boredom I felt, but cookies were the only thing I had to hand at the time”.

Lynn. Yes, cookies were a means to an end, not an end in themselves, it was wanting to avoid boredom that you really wanted, not the cookies. The cookies just happen to be there, and temporarily allowed you a distraction from boredom. What else do you think you could have done as a child to avoid boredom?

Sandy.“I would have loved to sing as a child, but I was so shy and my parents didnt really encourage it, I would sing secretly outside sometimes to myself”.

Lynn. “Yes, if you just take a deep breath, and imagine you are that young girl again, see yourself feeling that familiar feeling of boredom, only this time instead of reaching for the cookies or cake, your mum comes to you and says, “come on Sandy” let’s sing a song together”, you both start singing a happy song and your feeling great! What song are you singing?..

Sandy. “We are singing somewhere over the rainbow”,…(Sandy was now smiling, eyes closed)

Lynn.“Yes, and now see yourself at different times, knowing that a feeling of boredom is your cue to start singing! and you can sing anytime you want to you notice how good it feels! you know that it was never the cookies or cake you wanted, it was an end to the boredom you wanted! And now you have it you have found something that ends the boredom, something that is really good for you!, really be there and feel what that feels like, to sing and feel good!

Sandy. “Wow!, that felt really emotional.”

Lynn. So now, you have this information that you didnt have before, you now realise you really do have a healthy enjoyable way of relieving boredom, and that there never was a link between eating and getting rid of boredom, it was just that you were not aware of other choices back then, you tried to meet your needs in the best way you knew how.

Sandy. Yes it does feel different, I feel like I really want to start singing lessons!

Lynn. Great! You can use this timeline method anytime you want to make a change, just like we have used it today.

Sandy had a few other conditioned responses to eating which we worked on over a number of weeks, she was quite quickly able to break the pattern of emotional eating.

To decondition emotional eating we have to firstly notice our triggers and rewards.

When a person traces back to the origin of the conditioned response, as in the case above, they can break the pattern, but only when they see that the link they made was arbitrary, in other words, it was a link created by them! ..and if other things had been available, such as being encouraged to sing for instance, then the singing may well have become the conditioned response to boredom instead of eating.

Lynn Armstrong

Coaching To Stop Emotional Eating


Published by From Conflict To Connection

My name is Lynn Armstrong, I work as a relationship coach, and also in the area of stress resilience

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