What To Do After Emotional Eating

Dec 27, 2018

You wake up, only to realize you weren’t sleeping.

You were… off somewhere. Possibly you were caught up in replaying what happened that day. There was an argument, a stinging comment, a decision that didn’t go your way, or an unfair twist of fate.

And what the hell are these crumbs? Oh yes, now it’s coming back… while you were wading thigh-deep in unpleasant emotions, you decided to eat. And now the food is gone, and you barely remember it. And you’re still upset.

In this circumstance, a lot of our clients focus on undoing “the damage." They're concerned about the calories they took in, and how they’ll gain weight unless they do something. They plan a killer gym workout at 5 am. They chop up lettuce for the following days. Or they just head to bed, knowing in the morning things will seem new again, and they can forget the overeating and start fresh.

Heightened emotional states can trigger eating for a number of reasons: food is pleasant, it’s calming, it’s often automatic and doesn’t require a lot of thinking. It can make us feel comforted and distracted. Grabbing food is like changing the subject when your nosy family member starts asking questions about something you really do not want to talk about. “Oh, hey, cookies!” Get me out of here! (Like the Twix commercial... "Time out for a Twix"!)

The discomfort of being in the present moment is sometimes all too real. And the suggestion of mindfulness often doesn’t sound appealing - who would want to hang out soaking in their terrible feelings?

So whether you’ve eaten your bad mood, chomped on your anger, or swallowed your sadness, you’re not alone, and you aren’t weak or crazy. You wanted to feel better. That’s normal. As for what to do next, here are some ideas:

Step 1: 

If it's late, go to bed. Staying up extra late will do you no favors, so get thee to bed. Proceed to step 2 in the morning:

Step 2:

Ask yourself if you’re up for facing the feelings at the moment. Sometimes after eating the feeling is lighter, and you may feel like a do-over. Would you like to try again from the top?

If your answer is yes, try to specify what you’re feeling by name (anger, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, etc) and what caused it. There are no right or wrong answers, and sometimes no clear cause, but do a mental rewind and see if there’s some trigger you can identify.

Then, consider your options going forward because you can’t change what happened already. You can always do nothing, but if it seems potentially helpful, maybe you want to say something to someone? Change a routine or habit you have that’s making you unhappy? Ask for help? Change your expectations? Decline the meeting or postpone the trip? Find out more information?

Identifying your options has an impact itself -- before you even do anything -- because it puts you back in control, reminding you that no one else is steering. You get to choose how you respond to the situation.

Then, choose one and plan it out. Or if you choose to do nothing, just give it time and the feeling will pass on its own.

If you said NO to #2 above, that’s ok. When we’re very intensely emotional, sometimes it really does feel like too much to handle, and all we can think about in the moment is escaping. While suppressing your feelings on an ongoing basis tends to be maladaptive (not good for you), dodging them for a few hours to play a video game is perfectly fine. I recommend a “distract and journal” approach, where you distract yourself with any non-harmful activity until you feel able to come back to them, and then journal through the same questions as above.

  • I notice I’m feeling ________________ and it makes we want to eat.
  • I think it’s related to (person, place, event, etc) ______________________.
  • My options are:
    • Do nothing and give the feeling time to pass
    • Say something to ___________________.
    • Ask for _____________________. (Help? Forgiveness? A day off? A listening ear?)
    • Find out more information about __________________.
    • Adjust my expectations about ______________________.
    • Other? 

Step 3:

Wait until you get hungry and resume eating like normal. (That’s the easy part.)


Eating during emotional times is a common issue. You are totally normal if you do it. Most people don’t actually gain awareness though, so they keep doing it. If you want to stop emotional eating, focus on the feelings, not the food.

If you can’t bear to face them in the moment, distract yourself temporarily with something other than food, and come back to them. When you are ready, journal or talk it out with a friend to see what you are feeling and what you want to do about it, if anything.

With practice, you’ll be able to notice your emotions peaking, and respond proactively to them more easily, without eating first. But even if you did already try to chew them away, it’s never too late to practice responding.

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