Stress and Emotional Eating: Using Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Break the Habit

Most of the dieters whom I treat overeat when they’re feeling stressed or experiencing a negative emotion such as anxiety, sadness, anger, shame, and so on. They often have one or both of the following unhelpful ideas:

 “There’s nothing I can do to calm down when I’m upset.”

“I deserve to eat when I’m upset.”

As long as they hold beliefs like these, they will remain vulnerable to regaining the weight they have lost. They need to change their thinking. They need to learn how to accept and tolerate negative feelings and how to cope with stress in more healthy ways.

Katie, a dieter whom I saw last year, had been doing so well initially. Early on, she was highly motivated and was able to stay on track even when she was upset. When she became upset, she would tell herself, “NO CHOICE. It’s not time to eat. I CAN’T eat now.” She would turn her attention to something else, her negative feelings would slowly subside, and she’d feel proud that she had stuck to her plan.

But then Katie went through a particularly stressful period. Her father was hospitalized. Her youngest child started having problems in school. She got a new supervisor at work who was making unreasonable demands on her. Katie continued to follow her eating plan throughout each day. But come 9 pm, when her children were in bed, the permission granting beliefs above led to Katie’s consuming “all the carbs I can get my hands on,” until she went to sleep. She quickly started regaining the 22 pounds she had lost. She was frustrated and angry at herself but couldn’t seem to stop.

First Katie and I did some problem-solving. As soon as she got her kids in bed, she would decompress by doing deep breathing and then she’d have a cup of herbal tea. Next we did some cognitive work. Following our discussion, Katie composed messages on index cards which she was to read each day after work, just before she walked in the house. She was to read them again as she was sipping her tea. This is what Katie’s cards said:

“If I want to lose weight permanently, I have to stop eating when I’m upset—every time. People without weight problems don’t eat when they’re upset. They either tolerate their negative emotions or try to solve the problem or call a friend or take a walk or go online or read a magazine or watch television. But they don’t eat.”

“Negative emotions are uncomfortable but not dangerous. I don’t have to “fix” them. I’ve had lots of times when I’ve felt very upset but I haven’t eaten. I’ve never exploded or lost control. The worst thing that will happen if I don’t eat is that my distress will peak and then the intensity of my emotions will go down. “

“If I eat, I’ll be temporarily distracted from my distress but whatever problem led to my distress in the first place will still be there and then I’ll also have the problem of feeling badly that I ate and I’ll really feel badly when I see that the scale has gone up.”

Katie also started back on Day 1 of the cognitive behavioral program for weight loss and maintenance so she could sharpen her skills of re-motivating herself, gaining confidence by giving herself credit, tolerating cravings, and getting back on track immediately when she made a mistake. The incidence of her eating for emotional reasons declined sharply. She slipped a few times but the challenge became easier and easier as time went on. The chance that Katie will be able to maintain her weight loss into the future has increased exponentially.

5 replies
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    I can relate to this dieter. When I had some health problems with allergies and dehydration, my weight creeped up a few pounds. Then my mother became sick in June and I spent more time with her than is good for my stress levels. I had lost nearly 15 pounds using ideas in the Beck Diet. Starting in May I gained back four of them in the past six months. I want to nip this in the bud, negotiate a more suitable food environment when I have meals with my mother, and turn this ship around. It’s so important to me to solve these problems and get back in control

  2. a
    a says:

    I’m so glad there is a new post, just timely as it’s near the holiday season. And I appreciate the examples of response cards given (:

  3. Amy
    Amy says:

    I started a new habit that seems to be helping. I have a little book where I record my weight every day as well as a what exercise I did and reasons to lose weight and give myself credit. I started writing down the calories I have each day (the Calorie King software makes it very easy to track this). As much as I’d like to, there are many days I have more than the targe number of calories. Rather than ignore this, or have a vague idea of what my intake is on days I go over target, this practice is keeping me honest, accountable and aware. I’ve done this since the New Year, and took an average after the first week. I noticed I lost 1 1/2 pounds by eating 150 calories over the target (making me think the target is too low) This way I’m finding out what calorie level is truly required and how the calories directly influence the weight over time. I’m optimistic about this. A difficulty comes when eating out, when I really have no idea how many calories are in the meals. I prefer to avoid this as much as possible when I’m trying to make the most progress.

  4. Tandy
    Tandy says:

    Great timing for me to find out about the Beck Diet Solution! Just this week, without knowing about it, I made myself a little cribsheet of notes to use when I feel like I want to binge. So now I know it’s a good idea! I’m aware that emotional eating (which constituted easily 50%+ of my eating heretofore) is NEVER a good idea!

    Thank you. I look forward to hearing more from Amy and others, as well.

  5. Amy
    Amy says:

    Hi Tandy,
    That’s great about your cribsheet! I use notecards, but it’s the same idea. I hope I don’t have another emotional upset for a while, but if I do, I’m going to be more ready for it than I was before. There will be other ways to cope than using food.


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