Food is a temporary self-soother for those who use gooey goodies to self-medicate painful emotions. Eating prompts the brain to release endorphins, known as ‘feel good’ chemicals. These chemicals include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which the brain interprets as pleasure, according to a research study described in the 2018 journal Cell Metabolism.
“Emotional eating refers to consumption of food for the purpose of regulating one’s emotional states. Eating palatable foods—commonly, foods that are sweet, fatty, or high in carbs—may improve our mood temporarily, but that short-lived comfort comes at the cost of weight gain and other health issues,” according to a 2019 article in Psychology Today.
Emotions surrounding the holiday season may trigger binge eating. And there’s usually plenty of festive foods around.
Loneliness. Being alone for the holidays, for whatever reason, may bring on sadness.
Grief. Holidays may elicit memories of deceased loved ones and feelings of loss and sorrow.
Divorce. Newly divorced individuals in the process of moving on may experience a myriad of emotions. Breakups and relationship issues can lead to confusion, anger, and guilt.
Finances. The cost of holiday celebrations can spark worry and fear. Planning, shopping, and cooking can initiate the urge to stress eat.
Unrealistic expectations. Not all family members or friends can make it to the Christmas dinner. Disappointment may increase eating.
Christmas shopping, large crowds, and rude drivers. ‘Tis the season so be prepared. And skip Black Friday.
What can you do to curb holiday binge eating? The first step is awareness of the problem. The second step is to make a plan with coping skills. Ask for support from trustworthy family or friends. What do you need instead of food when emotions are overwhelming? How can you prevent and manage stress attributed to the busy season?
Use a Hunger Scale
A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between biological hunger and psychological hunger. Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions.
An article at HealthLinkBC described a hunger scale. When you become hungry, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 means you’re comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full.
- 1—Starving, weak, dizzy
- 2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy
- 3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
- 4—Starting to feel a little hungry
- 5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
- 6—A little full, pleasantly full
- 7—A little uncomfortable
- 8—Feeling stuffed
- 9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
- 10—So full you feel sick
If you feel like eating but your hunger level is a 6 or higher on the scale, stop and check your emotions. www.healthlinkbc.ca.
Emotional cravings are a signal that you need something else instead of food. Managing a mood with food is taking comfort from something that is not meant to comfort. Learning to manage feelings is the key to managing binge eating during the holidays.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in US.
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