Being a mom can make you feel like an emotional wreck: one minute you’re feeling frustrated, bored and isolated and the next, you’re elated and overjoyed. And to make things even more complicated, these intense emotions can make you turn to food, even when you’re not hungry. “Everything is amped up,” said Jill K. Thomas, a hypnotherapist and author of Feed Your Real Hunger: Getting Off the Emotional Treadmill That Keeps You Overweight, who says particularly after giving birth, hormones drive your emotions to be even more intense than normal.
So how can you deal with your feelings without raiding the fridge? Here are five ways:
1. Stop the cycle
You’ve got a hankering for chocolate covered pretzels but within five minutes, you’ve eaten the entire bag. You feel guilty so you punish yourself by swearing off lunch, which leads you to feel bad about yourself and ultimately you’re right back to overeating. “It ends up being bad feelings on top of bad feelings, which drives that behavior even more,” Thomas said.
By identifying when you’re eating for emotional reasons, you can help to break the habit. Keeping a journal of what you ate, at what time, and the emotions you were experiencing can give you the perspective you need to determine if you’re eating because you’re bored, for example, or if you’re really hungry.
2. Get more sleep
Sounds impossible, right? Yet getting a few more hours of shut-eye is important if you want to try to eat healthier. According to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who slept for four hours ate 300 calories more than when they slept for 9 hours. “Everything is more frustrating when you’re not getting enough sleep,” said Thomas, who likens sleep to hitting the restart button on your computer. “If you never get to do that, all this frustration and information doesn’t get a chance to settle into your system, and it can make things difficult and emotional,” she said.
3. Curb the cravings
If you crave chocolate, there’s a scientific reason for it: it releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones that make you feel physically and emotionally happy. So when you have a low level of endorphins, you may experience anxiety and pain, causing you to turn to fatty foods that increase happy feelings, according to the journal Acta Neuropsychiatrica.
To help curtail those cravings, it’s important to determine what you’re really hungry for and what emotion food is becoming a substitute for, according to Lisa Brateman, a relationship specialist in private practice in New York City who runs emotional eating support groups. Sometimes food can take the place of the emotional connection with your partner that you’re lacking since becoming parents or it can be a way to deal with the financial burden of raising a child. When that happens, “You’re not feeding your hunger, you’re feeding your fears,” she says.
It might seem counterintuitive, but by giving yourself permission to eat a small portion of the comfort food you’re craving, you’re more likely to eat less of it in the long run. “By saying ‘no, no way, never’ you make it a controlled substance and we as human beings love to push back against control of any kind,” said Thomas who thinks that the food can become an all-out obsession causing you to eat much more of it than you normally would. Eventually, as the novelty of the food wears off, you’re more likely to pass it up.
5. Replace food with a plan
Emotional eating is really a way to change the way you’re feeling in the moment, so finding alternative ways to cope with your feelings is a more effective approach. Have at least five quick and easy ways to deal with your emotions so you’re always prepared. For example, if you find that you’re consistently feeling bored and isolated, plan ahead to go for a walk in the park with your baby, meet a friend for coffee, or go online and connect with other moms on message boards. “Sometimes, just a five minute reset is all you need to get some perspective to change the way you feel,” Thomas said.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com