Awakening: How ‘Waking-Up’ Helps Us Manage Emotional Eating


As we enter the month of April, we are truly stepping into spring. Here in Vermont it will still be some time before we actually see green grass, but as the snow melts and the ground begins to thaw, the earth begins to reawaken. As it starts to wake up from its winter sleep, the change that occurs is phenomenal.

Awakening is a word I often use when talking with the women here at Green Mountain about emotional or binge eating.

managing emotional eatingEmotional Eating In Autopilot Mode

When we emotionally eat, we’re on autopilot, which can be likened to sleep. Going on autopilot occurs frequently in life — how many times, for example, have you driven on the same stretch of road, arrived at your destination and thought to yourself ‘I don’t even remember the ride’?

Similarly, when it comes to emotional eating, we can easily go on auto-pilot because if we’ve been using food to cope for some time, we’ve developed “Grand Canyons” of neural pathways in our brain – ways of behaving when certain emotions strike that we fall into out of habit.

However, by awakening to what we’re doing in the moment, and beginning to eat more consciously, purposefully and decisively, we begin to create new neural pathways.

Pay Attention When Eating To Stay Awake

What I’m referring to is literally staying awake while we are eating.  Paying attention to our hunger and satiety, to our taste buds, our feelings, and our thoughts in the moment brings us out of ‘the deep sleep’ –  out of auto-pilot — allowing us to make conscious decisions throughout the eating experience.

jon kabat-zinn quote mindfulnessImagine what might happen when we wake up to what we are doing in the moment.  How would the food taste throughout eating?

Would we suddenly notice hunger and satiety cues? Would we notice some should/shouldn’t messages?  Would we notice fears, anxieties, and stressors?

Remember that when we’re tuned out, it’s often because we’re stuffing another, usually more uncomfortable, emotion.

During the stress response, when we’re in fight or flight, we tend to comfort eat because…well…we’re stressed and need comfort.

Comfort eating is ok as long as we have other tools for dealing with the stress and for finding comfort, too. 

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So, how do we wake-up to our emotional eating?

Here at Green Mountain, we help women learn how to surf the urge.  The idea is that generally when we emotionally eat, we’re not necessarily hungry.  Practicing the following step-by-step exercise before eating helps wake us up to what we’re doing in the moment and helps with going off auto-pilot around food.

4 Steps to Manage Emotional Eating

1. Take a breath.

2. Ask yourself – Am I hungry?

If yes – eat mindfully.  That is, check in with your hunger cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.

3. If no – ask yourself – What’s up?

What am I thinking?  Feeling? And most importantly, Am I willing to try an alternative first before turning to food to self-soothe?

An alternative to food can be anything that is soothing to you – some deep breathing, a cup of tea, a bath, calling a friend, drawing, reading, playing music, etc.

4. Eat Mindfully

If you’re not willing to find an alternative and just want to eat, then…well…eat.  But eat mindfully – and again, check in with your cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.

Remember that it’s ok to eat emotionally; food can definitely be a coping tool.  But to use food as an effective coping tool, we want to pay attention to how often we use food and how much food we use, as well as what other tools we have for coping.

Much like the earth thawing in the spring, and being open to seeds of possible new life, I hope you open yourself up to the possibility of awakening to your eating experience, and what new awareness going off autopilot may bring for you.

4 responses to “Awakening: How ‘Waking-Up’ Helps Us Manage Emotional Eating”

  1. Pam Hughes, NZ says:

    Hi Shiri, Its perfect timing for me to read this at work today. Underlying emotion – boredom. Whereas normally I would sit and snack, this time i sip my tea and ‘surf the urge’ – and of course tackle the real issue by switching activities for a while. Feels uncomfortable, and the urge hasn’t gone (old habit to change) but so good to be awake and mindful! 🙂

  2. shirimacri says:

    Hi Pam,
    It’s good to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well. I’m so glad this came at the right time for you. It’ll take a while for that pathway to grow, but it will, and the discomfort lessens gradually.
    Take Care,

  3. Melanie says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m a bulimia survivor, and am in the midst of creating a mindful eating workshop. Mindfulness played a big role in my recovery and I appreciate this acknowledgement here.

    • Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC says:

      You’re quite welcome, Melanie. I’m glad this article was helpful to you and yes…mindfulness is such a big part of healing eating behaviors.
      Take care,

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About the Author

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC

Since 2004, Shiri’s approach as a therapist for treating binge and emotional eating is holistic, focusing not only on the presented issue at hand but also considering overall health. Working in this way often includes mindfulness-based approaches. Now as a trained MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher, Shiri’s love of mindfulness and meditation practices are at the forefront of her blog writings and recordings. Shiri is the Clinical Director at the Women's Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, affiliated with Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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