To cope with troubling emotions, we need to ask ourselves why painful emotions are scary for us.

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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

Q: I’d consider myself a perfectionist, but I’m also anxious and a procrastinator. Whenever I feel nervous, I also feel the need to eat everything around me, and I can’t stop! What can I do to stop emotional eating?

Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that can keep painful emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger undercover.

In a survey, 38 percent of adults disclosed that stress had caused them to overeat, and 49 percent said they overate weekly. 

Here’s what can happen: Let’s say you have a looming deadline at work, but the thought of starting your project triggers unbearable anxiety. To avoid this icky emotion, you procrastinate by reaching for a piece of chocolate or a slice of pie instead. 

In such instances, emotional eating becomes a bandage that temporarily slams the door on anxiety.

Not only that, but eating sugary foods also causes the brain to release ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters like dopamine, which elevates your mood — at least temporarily.

What’s the key to unwinding this behavior? Putting the brakes on emotional eating requires learning more balanced ways to cope with troubling emotions.

To do this, we need to ask ourselves why feeling painful emotions is so scary for us. You might start by asking this simple question: “When I feel anxious, what signal does my body send to me?”

For instance, does your stomach swirl? Does your breathing become shallow? Does your heart race? All of these sensations are the body’s way of alerting us to emotions that need to be noticed.

After acknowledging these flickering feelings, try engaging in an activity, such as a mindful breathing exercise, journaling, or talking to a trusted friend. When we pay attention to whatever pains us, fear begins to lose its grip, allowing bad coping mechanisms — like emotional eating — to fade away.


Juli Fraga lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and two cats. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Real Simple, the Washington Post, NPR, the Science of Us, the Lily, and Vice. As a psychologist, she loves writing about mental health and wellness. When she’s not working, she enjoys bargain shopping, reading, and listening to live music. You can find her on Twitter