The Answer: Some people turn to drugs, alcohol or sex to escape from unpleasant or overwhelming emotions. Many turn to food, which can have similar effects in the brain.
Studies indicate that emotional eaters’ brains may be particularly sensitive to the rewards of food, compared to people who don’t engage in bad-mood binges, many of whom don’t want to touch food during distressing times. Brain scans of emotional eaters show that regions associated with reward and anticipation of reward light up more when they’re in a negative mood. Non-emotional eaters, on the other hand, show decreased activation in these areas under the same circumstances.
Conditioning also plays a role. Eating when we’re blue becomes a habit like any other; a region of the brain called the basal ganglia becomes programmed to respond to negative feelings the same way each time. Like muscle memory, emotional eating can become an automatic behavior. Not just any food will do, either. If you find yourself tearing through a pint of ice cream in a time of crisis, it’s likely because certain foods, like sugar, are more addictive than others. Eating sweets makes you crave more sweets. No one binges on kale.
There is no clear rationale to explain why some people eat to manage emotions while others don’t, but emotional eaters are often trying to escape from and repress negative feelings, rather than accept and face them. Reprogramming our mental pathways requires pausing when we have unpleasant feelings instead of automatically reaching for those cookies and chips. If you’re too worked up to control your cravings, take a walk, call a friend or listen to music—anything that engages your senses and helps you refocus your energy away from food and toward resolution.
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