Therapeutic interventions for emotional overeating behaviour
Susie Orbach famously wrote in her 1970’s classic of the same title that “fat is a feminist issue”, I would like to say that overeating is almost always an emotional issue. We are all born with an innate ability to self-regulate our eating, a breastfed baby will cry when it is hungry and stop when it has had enough, it is virtually impossible to overfeed it.
So for most of us our first experience of being soothed is being fed. In some families it may be that the parents/caregivers are able to teach the growing child to recognise and experience other hungers for fun, stimulus, touch, contact, connection etc., and enable them to learn how to satisfy those needs for themselves. The adults these children become have more awareness of how to soothe themselves and know how to manage the emptiness within.
But for many people this has not happened and they numb unwelcome feelings and emotions with food, drugs, alcohol, overworking, exercising etc. The difficulty comes when the coping strategy becomes the problem. If food is the drug of choice, it is fine until the weight gain associated with it becomes a problem. It is then that the savage cycle of feeling bad, numbing eating, critical self-talk, leading to lower mood and more numbing eating kicks in.
The traditional “diet” approach to helping people break out of this cycle is to tell them to decrease their calories in and by moving more, which is of course true, but not necessarily the first step.
There are probably many ways of interrupting this cycle. The ones I have found to be most effective are to work in reducing the shaming self-talk, tolerating and/or expressing strong feelings and emotions, and to start finding ways to become aware of and satisfy the non food related hungers identified above.
The first task in helping clients to lose weight is to help them improve their mood. As they feel better, and their confidence and self esteem rises they are able to engage with new coping and self-soothing strategies, and then let go of their dependency on food to feel better.