How to Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food

Five steps you can take to learn how to cope with your emotions without turning to food.

Man, it’s been a week over here. I woke up Monday morning with a 101.1 fever and went to bed with it at 102.

It was one of those mornings where I was HOPING that this wasn’t the start of being really sick and at the same time… 

I knew it was…

But thankfully, Monday was the worst of it and today I am feeling a lot more normal. My brain is taking a little more time to follow 😉

Being sick sure does make me appreciate my “normal.”

I ended up rearranging my whole work week for what felt like the first voluntary time ever.

I knew that lately I’d let way too much un-necessary stress get to me (losing perspective, sweating the small stuff) and I truly needed to simmer down, take care of myself and come back to calm.

Even through the stress of life lately, I never once turned to food to numb through it.

As I write this blog post, I’m reflecting on my past self who, today, would be stuffed full of ice cream, cereal, and nacho’s from the stress-of-lately.

In fact, I wouldn’t be typing to you here, but I’d be journaling to myself for the 100th time: “What is wrong with you? WHY can’t you just pull it together? You KNOW this doesn’t make you feel good. Why do you ALWAYS do this?”

My past self was SO frustrated with how I’d use food to cope with my emotions. I truly believed I’d never stop. Because I had no shortage of “wanting to stop.” But it felt like I couldn’t stop. Like it was almost out of my control.

You see, when I used to control my life through dieting (it was a false sense of control – an illusion) I would resort to CONTROL in an opposite way with food when things got stressful. 

When things in my life felt OUT OF CONTROL I would try to regain a sense of control by giving myself permission to throw OUT the control around food that I’d manufactured into my life.

In a roundabout way, choosing to throw OUT control also gave me an illusion of control.

Because *I was in control* of whether I was “being good” or “throwing in the towel.” I was afraid to let that go. At times, it (food-control) was the only thing I felt I ​could control. 

And THAT my friends, was really hard to let go of when the rest of life felt chaotic and unsure.

So if you’re struggling with this – with control around food; with binge eating; with using food to cope with your emotions – then todays blog post is for you.

Let’s talk about how to cope with your emotions without using food (if you have the Intuitive Eating book you can dive even deeper into this on page 149 because this IS one of the main principles of Intuitive Eating).

Have Grace with Yourself

First things first… have some grace!

You did grow up in a society that uses food to celebrate EVERYTHING. This isn’t a “bad” thing. It only becomes a problem when it begins to negatively affect us. When food is our only or main source of comfort.

When we feel that sense of out-of-control-ness which I described as what I used to feel, all of the time. When I USED food to feel in control of my life. This put food on a pedestal. It made food my main focus in everything.

If I wanted to feel better about myself: control food. If I was feeling stressed or bad about my life: binge food. If I was angry: be mad about food.

I was repeatedly NOT addressing the actual issues or feelings at hand, but instead going straight to food (whether my aim was to binge on it or control/restrict it entirely, I always seemed to come back to food).

When we’re avoiding feeling at ALL by using food to numb our emotions, that’s where the-stuff-of-this-blog-post comes in where we DO want to work on this so that we can be IN our lives (not always taking ourselves OUT of our lives).

Because that’s how we grow. We feel through the hard thing. We celebrate the happy thing. We allow our stressed-out-feelings to teach us something.

You use food for a reason. Whether or not you know what that reason is doesn’t change the fact that one of the BEST things you can do for yourself right now is to shower yourself in grace.

That might sound like this: “I know this is frustrating for you, that you can’t seem to feel/cope with your emotions without food. I know this is scary. I know this is daunting. But it’s okay. I’m here for you. There are other people who struggle with this too. What if there were nothing to be afraid of? Let’s just try feeling our emotions. What if they’re not so bad? What if we survive?”

Understand that Food Doesn’t Fix Feelings

We all know that food doesn’t “fix” our feelings on a logical level. But we really need to think about this.

When you’re UBER stressed and you use food to cope, what is that ACTUALLY doing? It’s acting as a very short buffer to avoid feeling the full EFFECT of your stress. It’s not even getting rid of the stress.

And, the food ONLY works while you’re actively ingesting it. Well, the other way it might work is that by eating LOADS of food you’re giving yourself a break.

For example: When you’re eating a snack, you give yourself permission to stop working for 15 minutes. Or when you’ve eaten so much that you feel sick, you simply can’t work any longer. So you give yourself permission to “wrap things up for the day” and go to bed.

When is it that you want to go to food? In those moments, ask yourself this: What am I NOT giving myself permission to do right now? What would I be trying to GIVE MYSELF by eating? A break? A pause? Permission to stop working? Permission to procrastinate?

(It can be really hard to ask yourself all of these questions in a heated/emotional moment, so if you need more support here, inside The Growth Vault I’m coaching my students on a method to pair with these questions to help you to more easily remember to reflect.)

Look at what EATING FOOD would have you do. How would it have you change course? Practice GIVING yourself that thing instead. I can bet you, you’re going to find a way to give yourself that thing ANYWAY, but you’re going to use FOOD to do it.

So if you want to stop using FOOD, you MUST start giving yourself the permission that you’re trying to get BY using food. Make sense?

LEARN from your desire to eat.

Be Friends with Your Emotions and Seek to Nurture Yourself

Your emotions are here to teach you something. For example, let me share some emotions that I had this week and what they were here to teach me:

  • emotion = stress; here to teach me to LET GO
  • emotion = sadness; here to teach me to have an important conversation
  • emotion = worry; here to teach me that I want to focus more on gratitude and getting back to Church (I’ve skipped a few weeks and noticed that I really need that weekly encouragement)

Had I shoved myself full of food when I felt sad, worried or stressed I wouldn’t have learned any of these lessons. You know why?

Because instead of asking myself “How are you feeling” “What can we do about that?” “What’s going on?” I would have thought the problem was my relationship with food and I would have put all of my focus on controlling that instead.


Find Ways to Soothe Yourself and Meet Your Needs

Instead of fearing your emotions and pushing them away, find ways to help yourself feel SAFE to feel through them.

Emotions themselves will not kill us.

We need to learn to view our emotions as friends. It’s not GOOD to have all positive emotions and it’s not BAD to have negative ones. All emotions are neutral. They just are.

If you can start to see them that way, then perhaps you’ll feel less likely to push them away. If you begin to welcome them instead, then perhaps you’ll be more likely to learn from them.

I want you to think back for a moment to when you were a kid. What did you (or your parent) do to soothe you?

For example, for myself:

  • my mom would tell me “it’s okay”
  • I would take a nap and feel way better
  • I’d talk to someone
  • I would cry, have my fit, and then go on about my day (I always felt better after a big cry)
  • I would take a break – watch a show or sometimes have a little snack (this isn’t bad – this is different than food being our ONLY coping mechanism)

So what are the ways of soothing yourself that you can begin to intentionally build into your daily life (even before you NEED them) so that you can feel soothed and cared for more often?

Look at the Positives and Negatives of Using Food to Help

“Everything has a positive intention.”

This is something I learned from my Health Coach Training Program. Look for the positive intention in what you’re doing.

What GOOD are you trying to GRAB from eating through your emotions? You’re TRYING to help yourself, likely, even if it doesn’t feel good. Are you trying to find relief from an emotion?

Let’s use a non-food example, for a moment, to make sense of this.

Think of impulse shopping (this is why, as both a Health and Financial Coach, I say that the way we spend is the way we diet) and WHY you make an impulsive purchase.

Sometimes, I bet it’s because you believe that buying that thing will HELP you to feel better from whatever emotion you’re currently experiencing.

So if you’re feeling stressed about work, but you go to Nordstrom’s Rack and find the best pair of jeans that are going to feel SO GREAT to wear, and you buy them, you get a temporary HIGH and forget about how HARD work is.

For a moment, this works. But then comes Friday when you’ve got bills due and you’re wondering where your money went. You notice you’re over budget and you’re thinking “damn, I’ve really gotta get better at saving!”

Now it’s Friday and not only are you still stressed about work but now you’re MORE stressed about money and if you’ve already worn the jeans once or twice, chances are the high has worn off from those too.

Back to square one. And you’re looking for the NEXT THING to distract you from the stress of work and money and you think to yourself “Life is so damn hard.”

Where-as… we could have STARTED with taking a break. Looking at what was stressful at work, and talking to someone to map out what change we’re going to make. Or how we’re going to work through it.

Sure, that’s not going to give us a HIGH like shopping will, but what it will do is alleviate a bunch more “hard” that we self-inflict by AVOIDING our emotions.

It’s powerful to have this information and to be aware of how you might be trying to HELP yourself, even if this way of helping is no longer working.

Next, ask yourself this: “Was there a time where perhaps it DID work to use food to soothe myself?” If so, can you pinpoint where about it went sour or “over-board” to where it was no longer effective?

Knowing these things can help you to have GRACE for yourself.

In The Growth Vault this week we’re talking more about coping with your emotions without using food. I’ve given all of the members some practical steps to practice and “try on” so that they can begin truly coping with their emotions without using food (and not feel so afraid to do so).

If you’d like to join us, please do. You can join in just a few clicks here. And if you need more personal, one on one support with this, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here. You can book a 60-minute call with me on this page.

I hope this helps! If you’d like to share a take-away from this post or ask a question, feel free to leave a comment below. I love hearing from you!

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