Current events have turned our lives upside down. We’re facing unprecedented circumstances and uncertainty. We’re mostly stuck inside, many of us have lost our jobs, we’ve been forced to create an entirely new way of living, and day by day it is becoming harder to see a future that is certain and “normal” again.

Stress at this magnitude can bring a lot of emotions to the surface, some more unpleasant than others. In response to this uncertainty and if you’re like most of us, you might seek comfort in a familiar place: the kitchen. Eating when we feel emotions can be one of the easiest and most immediate ways to make ourselves feel better in stressful times, but if we continue to ignore certain emotions, bigger issues might arise down the road.

Think about it this way: you wouldn’t fill your gas tank with water and expect your car to run properly, right? 

You probably wouldn’t put more gas in your tank than your car could handle either. Cars require maintenance and care just like humans do. If we ignore the “check engine” light long enough, our car will start making funny noises, other parts will stop working, and we could eventually break down. Think of emotions like stress, anxiety and overwhelm like a “check engine” light. It’s our body’s way of letting us know it’s time to check under the hood. 

Food is a huge part of our lives. 

It’s a necessary part of our existence and for many, our culture. We eat to celebrate. We express ourselves through food. Usually, we share love through food. We gather with friends and family over food. It can bring so much happiness and excitement into our lives, which is why it’s natural for us to resort to food when we’re sad and want to feel joy. Psychologically, eating comfort food when things get tough can help us feel better, also called emotional or stress eating. However, this is only a temporary solution. Our “check engine” light might stop flashing for a little bit, but it’s not fixing the actual problem.

Biologically, eating can also help regulate energy levels when feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Stress is associated with changes in cortisol levels so we tend to crave foods higher in fat and simple carbohydrates because our bodies crave additional energy to function while under stress.

If you’ve noticed any changes in your eating patterns since the start of this uncertain and overwhelming time, your body is doing a great job of keeping you alive.

Our external environment can affect how we feel internally, so if there is fear and scarcity around the availability and accessibility to food, it can affect our eating patterns. Take this for example: one might be likely to eat more than normal when feeling overwhelmed as a means to cope. Some might find themselves snacking throughout the day, while others might severely restrict food intake in an attempt to feel in control.  

what it means when the check engine light is on

Although emotional eating feels good at the time, it’s not helping us get to the root cause of our stress or unpleasant emotions. 

If we continue to suppress those emotions with comfort food, we’re creating more health problems. For example, when we find ourselves emotionally eating food with little nutrition and minimal health benefits, it can weaken our immune systems, deplete our energy levels and affect our mental health at a time when protecting our bodies and our mindset is particularly important. If we don’t take care of ourselves and fuel our bodies with proper nutrition, we will suffer.

Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous or looking forward to something? Have you ever dreaded doing something that feels “gut-wrenching?” This communication between our brain and our stomach is called our “gut-brain connection,” which explains how what we eat affects our mental health.

A healthy, well-functioning gut has a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. 

When we overeat food that lacks nutritional value, like processed foods, added sugar and simple carbohydrates, it increases the amount of “bad” bacteria in our gut. Since “bad” bacteria feeds off unhealthy foods, the more we consume those foods, the more intense our cravings become. That’s why when we eat fast food, we tend to crave more of it.

Stress is another factor that depletes good bacteria. Since 70% of our serotonin production is in our gut, when the “good” and “bad” bacteria are out of balance, it can create more stress in our bodies, which affects our brain. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid unhealthy foods all together. It means that we should observe how certain food affects our mood and energy so we can create a healthy balance that works with our lifestyle. 

So how do we fix the “check engine” light?

When we have a thought, our brain sends neurochemicals and hormones to our bodies, which creates emotions. Our emotions influence our actions and behaviors, which in turn creates our reality. If we want to prevent those unpleasant emotions from negatively impacting our lives, we have to find ways to release our emotions. 

My physics teacher always told us “what we resist persists.” 

If we use food or other distractions to suppress our emotions, they will always surface. Think about it this way: when we’re happy and excited, we express our excitement by cheering, yelling, sharing with friends and family, celebrating, doing things we enjoy. This is how we release our emotions. Even when we experience unpleasant feelings, we want to vent to friends and family because we usually feel better after doing so. But when we hold onto stress, anxiety, worry, fear, it stays bottled up inside us. That emotional energy needs to be released. It’s physics!

Every day we should be checking in with our emotions and observing how we’re feeling throughout the day. Pay attention to your hunger cues. When you feel hungry, choose nutritious food that’s enjoyable and will keep you energized.

If you find yourself emotional eating, that’s ok.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember, this is your body’s way of letting you know it needs some T.L.C.

Here are 5 steps to help process your emotions that don’t involve food:

Thank yourself! 

Our bodies are always communicating to us and sometimes communication comes in the form of pain or uncomfortable feelings to get our attention. Thank your brain and your body for this opportunity to heal. It’s much easier to work through the sticky stuff when we come from gratitude and compassion, rather than hate and frustration. Gratitude is a universal tool for healing.

Intentional deep breathing.

Close your eyes and begin inhaling through your nose for 4 seconds, letting your belly expand. Then exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds, letting your belly retract. Repeat this 4-5 times. This deep, intentional breathing helps us tap into our parasympathetic nervous system which is in charge of slowing down our heart rate and body. By concentrating on our breathing, it gives us space to process our emotions without feeling consumed by them.

Identify thoughts.

Observe your thoughts without judgment. What thoughts are triggering emotions for you? Speak your thoughts out loud and write them down in a journal. This helps us to identify what thoughts are creating stress in our bodies.

Identify emotions.

Observe your emotions without judgment. What do you feel right now? How do these emotions feel in your body? Speak them out loud and write them in your journal. Just like we release emotions when we’re happy and excited, this is how we release emotions when we’re feeling stressed or anxious.

Creating a desired outcome.

Ask yourself: what emotions would I rather be feeling? What outcome would I rather be experiencing right now? What thoughts should I be thinking in order to create my desired emotions? Remember our thoughts create emotions that influence our actions which create our reality. Speak out loud the thoughts you feel would produce your desired emotions.

things to do to stop emotional eating

Keep everything you wrote from this process somewhere you can access easily. The more we go through these steps, the easier it becomes to shift our thoughts. 

Just like negative thoughts trigger negative emotions, we have the power to rewire that process to create positive, healthy thoughts.

Next time you feel unpleasant thoughts, practice choosing a different one and see how you feel. Just like anything in life, this takes practice and consistent work. Even if you don’t feel relief right away, just know that your brain is doing behind-the-scenes work for you. 

For most people, this will be the most stressful time in their entire lives. Everyone is coping with stress and overwhelm in different ways. If you experience unwanted eating patterns because of strong negative emotions, slow down and give yourself a breather. Your body is reacting exactly as it should, but if emotional eating is creating more stress for you, these practices will help you. 

There’s no perfect way to cope and we need to give ourselves more credit for dealing with uncertainty and stress in the best ways we know how. There is still plenty to be grateful for. Despite the tragedies we see every day, I’ve never seen strength, courage and compassion collectively from humans all over the world at this magnitude in my entire life. That is what motivates me to keep showing up every day and I hope it will for you too. Every day is bringing us closer to the end and we will come out of this stronger than ever.

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Jill Dreisilker

My name is Jill, and I am a Certified Health Coach with ALV. I was born and raised in the suburbs and proudly call Chicago my home. I love being outside as much as I can, even during the winter. I love yoga, bowling, food, all things health and wellness and of course, my Golden Retriever named Kevin. I find pleasure in enjoying the little things in life, like comfy clothes, puppy yawns and fresh flowers. My foundational coaching belief is that everyone has the power to change their life no matter what their past looks like. Read the rest of my story here!