Therapy for Emotional Eating: A Path for Healing, Hope, and Wholeness (Part 2)

Therapy for emotional eating, by Mary Anne Cohen
In my last article, we discussed the case of Judy, a woman who came for a consultation for her binge eating disorder and her wish to lose weight. Judy posed a series of questions about how therapy for emotional eating works. We continue with her questions.

What goes on in therapy sessions for emotional eating?

Sometimes we spend the session talking about a person’s week with food – what went right, what was not so great. We try to understand the patterns and trigger points that provoke emotional eating, and then we plot what to do next. Sometimes people keep a “food and mood” journal to help us get a better perspective on their week with food. This often highlights what situations, people, or places can create eating problems.

Sometimes the topic of food never even comes up in a therapy session. This does not mean that you are not actively working on your eating problem. It means that you are bringing out to the clear light of day other meaningful issues that have affected your eating.

As we saw with Judy, an eating disorder is about food and not about food at the same time.

People with eating disorders recruit food to soothe and distract themselves from deep and sometimes upsetting feelings.

In each session, we look at the unique interplay between food and emotions.

Clients may revert to hurtful eating behaviors even after they have made some progress. After all, it can be scary to lose weight, or to stop purging if you are bulimic, or to stop starving if you are anorexic. These abuses of food may have been your way of coping with stress for years. As you begin to progress away from your eating disorder, self-ambushes may sabotage success. Often a hidden fear of success is rooted in one’s heart.  This is where psychotherapy is valuable. No amount of weight loss programs or nutrition counseling — as helpful as they may be — will resolve this kind of ingrained issue.

Will I definitely lose weight in therapy for emotional eating?

Maybe. When you no longer use food as a reaction to inner stress, you will begin to reconnect your eating with physical hunger, not emotional hunger. The key is to eat from hunger in the stomach and not from hunger in the heart.

Eventually, you will arrive at your set-point, the weight range that your body was naturally meant to be. If you are committed to a size 4 when your natural body type and genetics dictates a size 10, you will be disappointed. You have a choice. You can redouble your exercise and food restrictions (which most times results in a backlash of overeating). Or, you can bemoan your fate and hate the way you look for the rest of your life. Or, you can try to understand why you are wedded to achieving a weight that is clearly not in harmony with your heredity.

This can be tough, especially since we live in a culture where appearance and image are everything. Many women often flounder at this point in their recovery because of the ingrained notion that the thinner you are, the more beautiful you are. This dooms them to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction and needs to be discussed and understood in their therapy. Self-acceptance takes time to achieve, but it is worth the effort since you are going to have to live with yourself for the rest of your life! As Lauren, one of my patients said, “Maybe I’m never going to really learn to fully love my body, but at least I can stop waging war on myself and learn to declare a cease-fire.”

Weight loss may be a byproduct of learning to listen to yourself and caring for yourself in a more accepting and more wholesome way.

Healing occurs when we integrate self-compassion for our body, our needs, and our deepest emotions.

How long will this therapy take?

Unless your problem just began yesterday, recovery is a process that takes time and patience. We saw in Judy’s case that after she experienced many layers of self-realization, over a period of time, she healed her eating problem.

Leslie had a different experience in the beginning. After four sessions of psychotherapy, Leslie’s husband did not notice any great weight loss for Leslie. As a successful businessman, he was used to quick, concrete results in his company. He wanted to know why she wasn’t cured yet. His pressure made Leslie ashamed that her therapy wasn’t working fast enough. Leslie was convinced that her only problem in life was that she was too fat. If she could only lose weight, she thought, she would be fine. Since she wasn’t losing weight in therapy fast enough, she was ready to give up on the therapy.

I pointed out to Leslie that she was in mourning for her mother who had recently died, she was in the process of buying a new house, and she had a long history of binge eating since her teenage years. Leslie underestimated how all these tensions in her life were causing a resurgence of her eating disorder. She needed time to calm down and appreciate and “digest” the losses and changes she was undergoing. Leslie also needed to learn that eating disorders are very often a person’s attempt to distract herself from the grieving process. When she became aware of this, she decided to take the time she needed to fully sort through her problems without feeling like a failure.

For many people, trusting food is safer than trusting people. For many people, loving food is safer than loving people. Food never leaves you, never abandons you, never dies, never mistreats you. You get to say when, where, and how much. No other relationship complies with your needs so absolutely.

The process of therapy is a journey of self-exploration that does not occur overnight. With self-reflection and self-compassion, patience and perseverance, you can declare peace with emotional eating. You can learn to sink your teeth into life, not into excess food!

Find Treatment and Support in Your Area

Further Reading: Therapy for Emotional Eating: A Path for Healing, Hope, and Wholeness (Part 1)

Image Source: Mara Berendt Friedman
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1 Comment

  • “For many people, trusting food is safer than trusting people. For many people, loving food is safer than loving people. Food never leaves you, never abandons you, never dies, never mistreats you. You get to say when, where, and how much. No other relationship complies with your needs so absolutely.”

    This is absolutely true in my case! Ordered your book, can’t wait to start reading!

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