Emotional Awareness and Food Cravings

How to Identify the Emotions Driving Your Food Cravings

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When emotions are the driving force that cause your food cravings, it is vital to develop emotional awareness. If you have been avoiding emotions through emotional eating—or any other mindless form of numbing them out—this can feel like an overwhelming (and emotional) mountain to climb.

As humans, we tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. While pleasure is an important part of life, generally, life cannot exist without both, and at times, this includes experiencing discomfort and pain. If you spend your life avoiding pain, you limit your ability to truly experience the pleasures in your life to their fullest.

While emotional eating can be triggered by any emotion, it is generally driven by a desire to avoid or numb out uncomfortable emotions. Discomfort is not experienced as pleasure and we tend to want it to just stop. Food can temporarily trigger the pleasure center in the brain causing a temporary suppression of the uncomfortable emotion. However, it does not just go away! It comes back, along with all of the other emotions you have been avoiding with food.

Learning to identify emotions and understand why you are experiencing them in the first place is essential. While it can feel daunting, knowing you have been avoiding the feelings for a reason, being able to create a more peaceful relationship with food, as well as with yourself is worth the effort. Know that this is a process, it takes time and indeed a good bit of effort. 

To get started, it is helpful to have a feelings/emotions journal. If you have no idea where to start with identifying, much less feeling your feelings, you can download a feelings wheel like this one here. Giving yourself dedicated time to building your emotional awareness muscle is important.

If you wanted to strengthen your biceps, you wouldn’t do just one bicep curl and expect to create the strength you desire and be done for life! You have to do many repetitions—and in order to maintain the strength you create, you must be consistent. You will most likely have to feel a little sore in order for growth to happen.

When you check in, you are identifying and exploring your emotions, this helps you build your emotional awareness muscles. You can continue to develop your emotional awareness by preparing yourself, having a plan, and committing to check in emotionally with yourself consistently.

Choose a time to give yourself space with your journal and emotions wheel and check in with how you are feeling right now. Ask yourself if there have been any emotions you experienced throughout the day today or even the day before that want to be recognized.

Once you acknowledge that a feeling is there, check in with how that particular emotion impacts your physical body. What’s occurring internally as you bring up or allow yourself to feel this emotion? Again, try not to judge your experience but witness it, be present with it, and if it’s uncomfortable try not to run from it—if it is comfortable, try not to cling to it.

Spend time observing this feeling and engage with it from the perspective of witnessing it. Become a silent observer of your emotions.

Now allow yourself to discover the why. Ask yourself, “why did I experience that emotion?” “What happened to create that specific emotion?” Try not to judge, just be curious. Name the feeling, observe it, and now understand the why. This is powerful information about your internal response to—and experience of your life. Emotions are valuable information about your experience of your life and allow you to make choices based on your internal experience.

Do you need to take action on the feeling? When you understand the why behind the feeling, you can decide if there is anything you need to do. If you are anxious, is there something you need to do? If you are angry, is there something you need to say? If you are bored, is there something constructive you could do? How can you take action in a way that is healthy and allows you to feel empowered and in control.

Now you have the opportunity to let it go! If you have allowed yourself to authentically feel your emotion, be non-judgmentally aware of it and derive the important information from it, you can make a choice about whether or not you need to take action. Now it is time to let it go. Releasing emotions comes with time and practice, practice and time.

Allow yourself to consistently show up for your emotions—all of your emotions—and you will find them to be less scary. Additionally, you will begin to feel more and more emotionally empowered. There are no “bad” feelings, just some that may be more comfortable than others, however, they are all vitally important to be aware of in order to make a choice about how to respond. Every emotion has a purpose and is a valuable element of being a human and of being alive.

As you begin to feel more comfortable experiencing your emotions, you can specifically apply these concepts and practices to eating. When you are experiencing a craving, you can ask yourself what you are actually hungry for in the moment. You may find more often than not, it is not actually food! Then you have an opportunity to make a choice.

You create the opportunity to make empowered decisions regarding how to respond to your emotions and how to choose the foods you truly want to eat—not because of an attempt to temporarily numb an emotion, but to enjoy the taste and experience of eating that particular food.

When you consistently practice emotional awareness, you will end the cycle of escaping your emotions with food. If you find you could benefit from support in this area, reach out, find support and begin to grow your emotional awareness. This creates an opportunity to make peace with food by making peace with yourself.