When Food Is Used for Self-Soothing

by Jodi R. Galin, Ph.D.

Most of us can relate to the idea of turning to ice cream when we feel sad/lonely/bored/anxious/hurt/angry…  Eating past fullness can be an effective method to comfort ourselves. I have explored the benefits of eating past fullness/bingeing/overeating with lots of clients.  While not everyone turns to overeating for the same reasons, here are some top reasons that people use food to comfort themselves:

  • Decrease physical and emotional pain
  • Numb emotions
  • Have a “friend” by one’s side
  • Allow one’s self to eat forbidden foods
  • Solve hunger
  • Protect one’s self with larger body size

These are important life benefits which should be honored.  However, some people seek to find other methods to gets these needs fulfilled.  Psychotherapy and nutritional counseling can be effective methods in helping people explore their needs and how to get them met.  Consider Sarah – a graduate student living with a roommate who works full time and frequently socialized out of the apartment. Sarah spent much time alone studying while the roommate was not home.  Sarah chronically tried to “watch what she ate” which left her in a cyclical pattern of underfeeding herself in the daytime and then turning to food for soothing while studying. In treatment, Sarah was able to look at her choices and needs.  Over time she chose to work on the following strategies with her psychotherapist and nutrition counselor:

  • Decreased time between meals.  This helped Sarah know that she could count on regular meals and snacks to get the nutrition that she needed.  She reduced mindless eating because she was more aware of choosing meals and snacks. 
  • Intuitive eating.  This helped her consider her hunger and fullness when deciding what and how much to feed herself.  Favorite foods were no longer “forbidden,” so she was able to more fully enjoy a portion of loved foods.
  • Fully engaging in psychotherapy.  This helped Sarah explore some the emotional wounds that needed tending.  She was able to find alternative coping and self-soothing strategies to handle these wounds.  
  • Making peace with body image issues.  Treatment, time, self-reflection, engaging fully in life — these strategies can contribute with increased comfort in the body one was given.  Body image issues sometimes can be slow to improve. 
  • Increased social interactions.  She moved some of her studying time to public places such as the library and the local coffee shop and made plans to study with friends.  This left her feeling much less alone.

Sarah’s progress took time and she faced bumps along the way.  And while she may at times continue to overindulge in ice cream, her “binges” are smaller, and she judges herself less severely.  All who are interested in developing a healthier relationship with food and feeling more comfortable in their own body are encouraged to consider their own journey for healing