Emotional Weight: How to Cope

Armen Hareyan's picture

Excessive weight gain is often a symptom of an underlying emotional dysfunction. Depression, boredom, loneliness, chronic anger, anxiety, frustration, stress, unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships, and poor self-esteem can result in excessive eating and subsequently unwanted weight gain.

Many of us learn that food can bring comfort, at least short term. As a result, we often turn to food to heal feelings of emotional stress. Eating becomes a HABIT and we fail to learn skills that will effectively resolve our emotional distress. By identifying what TRIGGERS our eating, we can substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our difficulties and take food and weight gain out of the equation.

Identifying eating triggers

Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories:

Eating when around other people. For example, excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat; eating to fit in; arguing; or feelings of inadequacy around other people.

Eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety or loneliness as a way to "fill the void."

Eating because the opportunity is there. For example, at a restaurant, seeing an advertisement for a particular food, passing by a bakery.

Eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating. For example, berating oneself for looks or a lack of will power.

Eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.


To identify what triggers excessive eating, keep a food diary that records what and when you eat as well as what stressors, thoughts, or emotions you can identify as your are eating. You will begin to identify patterns to your excessive eating fairly quickly.

Breaking the habit

Identifying eating triggers is the first step; however, this alone is not sufficient to alter eating patterns. Usually, by the time you have identified a pattern, eating has become a pattern. Now you have to break the habit.

Developing alternatives to eating is the second step. To most effectively break the habit of eating after various triggers, we need to develop alternative habits. When you start to reach for food in response to a trigger, try one of the following activities instead: watch television, read a good book or magazine, listen to music, or go for a walk, take a bubble bath, do a deep breathing exercise, play cards or a boardgame, dance, jog, talk to a friend, do housework or laundry, do some yard work, wash the car, walk the dog, write a letter, balance the checkbook, swim, brush your hair, brush your teeth, or do any other pleasurable or necessary activity until the urge to overeat passes.

How to cope

Sometimes simply distracting yourself from eating and developing alternative habits is not enough to manage the emotional distress that leads to excessive eating. Ways to more effectively cope with emotional stress can be achieved through training in:

  • Stress management
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Guided imagery
  • Meditation
  • Assertiveness training
  • Exercise
  • Group psychotherapy
  • Individual psychotherapy

These techniques address the underlying emotional distress and help resolve the original problem as well as teach us to cope in more effective and healthier ways.

Reward yourself

As you learn to incorporate more appropriate coping strategies and to curb excessive eating, remember to reward yourself for a job well done. We tend to repeat behaviors that have been reinforced, so reward yourself when you meet your nutrition management goals. Buy that blouse, take that vacation, or get that massage to let yourself know you have done a good job and to increase the likelihood that you will maintain your new healthy habits.


This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional written health information, please contact the Health Information Center at the Cleveland Clinic (216) 444-3771 or toll-free (800) 223-2273 extension 43771 or visit www.clevelandclinic.org/health/. This document was last reviewed on: 8/22/2002