Exposure Therapy: Learning to Manage Emotional Triggers
Health Weight Loss
Morgan Medeiros MSc
June 27, 2019
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Manage Emotional TriggersJust as certain foods can trigger overconsumption or binge eating, certain emotional situations/emotional triggers can also trigger a cycle of overeating.

Emotional Triggers Leading to Eating Issues

Emotional eating is incredibly common: food is pleasurable, and eating foods high in fat, salt, and sugar can cause a temporary spike in feel good hormones serotonin and dopamine.

From the moment we are born, our brains begin cultivating food reward pathways that prompt us to eat when we are hungry by releasing these powerful hormones after consumption.

For individuals prone to emotional eating, the powerful interplay between psychology (what we feel and how we think) and physiology (our bodies natural system) can make emotional eating very challenging to overcome.

However, overcoming emotional eating is absolutely possible with consistent emotional work, exposure, practice, and the development of health coping mechanisms.

Are You an Emotional Eater?

If you consider yourself to be an emotional eater, there’s a high likelihood that you eat in periods of high stress, anxiety, sadness, or anger.

In an attempt to self-soothe or self-numb, you may find yourself turning to specific foods or consuming large volumes of food, only to regret it later, creating a cycle of shame that prompts you to push the incident away, rather than acknowledging the challenge and asking for help or support in an effort to heal and rehabilitate your relationship with your emotions and food.

While any individual who struggle with emotional eating or binge eating should consider speaking with a psychologist for personalized assistance in their journey, the first step to managing emotional triggers is identifying which emotions make you most prone to overeating.

Identifying Triggers

The second step is identifying which situations bring about those feelings regularly.

For example, you might note that stress causes you to overeat, and that work is the primary contributor to your stress.

What Do You Eat?

The third step is to identify which foods or beverages you are particularly vulnerable to in those situations.

For example, you feel particularly vulnerable to overeat sweets.

Create Your Plan

Once you have determined the emotions, situations, and maladaptive coping mechanism (stress, work, eating sweets), you’ll need to develop an “If, then” plan that allows you to expose yourself to the emotion while practicing a healthy coping mechanism.

For example, If I am experiencing a week of high work stress, then I will not buy sweets for the house. I will go straight from work to the gym so that I can take out my stress that way before going home for dinner.

Or, If I am experiencing a week of high work stress, then I will not buy sweets for the house. I will call a friend that understands and will listen to me vent without judgment.

It’s important to remember that a replacement coping mechanism may not work the first time- you may practice the coping mechanism and then still give into the emotional trigger later.

However, it’s important that you keep with it! Over time, the new coping mechanism will become a more natural and effective reaction to emotional distress.

Morgan Medeiros is a certified nutritionist, holding a both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Morgan completed her undergraduate education at Central Washington University, and her graduate education at Northeastern University. During her time as a graduate student, Morgan focused her area of expertise in health education, weight management, and behavioral change. Morgan has experience working in areas of nutritional neuroscience and disease prevention, obesity prevention, and weight loss. Morgan also works in areas of nutritional analysis and menu labeling for restaurants, where she is able to creatively bridge her interest in food culture and health education. In her free time, Morgan enjoys traveling, reading, writing, running, and spending time with her family and friends (including- most importantly- her dog, Clyde).

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