It starts at a young age with associations we can’t remember making. But by this point in our short lives, we have engineered quite a few if-then connections.
If I throw my food on the floor, then mommy will be upset.
If I behave while at preschool today, the teacher will give me a sticker.
Perhaps there was a time where you fell, scraped your knee and began to cry because of the pain and shock. Maybe an adult offered you a lollipop to help cheer you up. Bam! Neural pathway made: “okay, so when I feel hurt, eating sweets is an acceptable solution”
Fast-forward decades years later and it’s still going on. A difficult conversation with your boss or spouse become an excuse, albeit mostly unconscious, to indulge in some ice cream. A night out drinking with friends is a ‘reward’ for a hellish, stressful week. And it’s OKAY to treat ourselves, but there’s a distinct mindlessness involved in emotional eating. Very few people think to themselves, “boy do these feelings hurt, perhaps I’ll eat enough chocolate chip cookies to squash them down.” And yet that unconscious belief can be at play, creating patterns that are deeply ingrained.
What to do?
The first step is awareness.
Perhaps the next time you find yourself reaching in the freezer for ice cream, ask yourself why you think you’re doing it. Perhaps you’ll reflect upon your day and remember that your boss assigned a short deadline for your next project, you’re completely overwhelmed by responsibilities, or that your mother-in-law criticized your parenting. Ice cream can seem like a balm for these ‘ouch’ moments, but there is more shame than comfort at the bottom of a pint of rocky road. Even if you find the answer to your question, you may not be able to change the behavior just yet. That’s okay. It’s something we can work on together.