When people feel disturbed or dissatisfied but don’t know how to change or fix the problem directly, they tend to utilize coping mechanisms to avoid it. The term “emotional hunger” comes from the fact that many people overeat due to being emotionally unsatisfied.
In his book Resilience, Eric Greitens talks about the fact that there are three types of happiness that human beings require: the happiness of pleasure, grace, and excellence. He compares them to the primary colors, explaining that just as you need all three to create the full spectrum of color, you also need all three happinesses to be truly fulfilled. The happiness of pleasure is the feeling of comfort and security, such as a warm home or good meal. The happiness of grace is the feeling of awe and gratitude. The happiness of excellence comes from pursuing something greater than our current circumstances.
However, not all of these happinesses are created equally. Some are harder to attain than others. That’s why people compensate with food and drink in place of effort and grit. It’s easier. But as Greitens says, too much red can never make blue. “Pleasures can never make you whole.”
Most people confuse emotional hunger for literal hunger and use overeating as a means of coping. However, others find other coping mechanisms to “fill” themselves, often by abusing substances, sex, relationships or intimacy.
These are the signs that you’re experiencing emotional hunger:
1. You struggle with overeating.
2. When you try to stop overeating, you feel an overwhelming sense of panic and dread.
3. The idea of food or eating is the only thing that makes you feel excited during the day.
4. When you overeat, you feel soothed and grounded.
5. You experience particular cravings. Emotional hunger requires that you eat something very specific, while real hunger does not.
6. When you are eating because you are emotionally hungry, the feeling is in your chest or head. When you’re really hungry, the feeling is in your stomach.
7. There is a sense of urgency. You often eat out because you can’t wait long enough for the food to be cooked or prepared at home.
8. You experience guilt and shame over your eating habits and subsequently, weight, to the point that you hide how much you eat, or avoid going out and being seen altogether.
9. As a child, you may have used food to feel good. Maybe lunch was the only part of the day that was exciting, or looking forward to dinner got you through stressful times with your parents.
10. You associate food with being loved or being happy. If you think back, your fondest memories always have to do with eating.
11. You are at least somewhat aware that there’s a part of your life you are unhappy with.
12. You are generally afraid of your feelings. For example, your biggest anxiety is the idea of being anxious.
13. You’re sensitive. It’s easy for you to think the worst about any situation, or let your irrational thoughts spiral.
14. You reward yourself with food.
15. You have a tendency to numb yourself or temporarily “blackout” while you’re eating.
16. You realize that you consume more than others do, and feel shame about it.
17. You recognize that your eating habits are covering up for your emotional states, but you feel helpless to change them.
In her book Eating In The Light of the Moon, Anita Johnson explains that when people struggle with eating in a profound and ongoing way, it’s often because adopting healthy eating habits would mean forcing themselves to feel what they do not want to feel. She says:
“Counting calories is not the answer, because eating is not the problem.”
Instead of trying to police, shame and force yourself into eating less, try the opposite approach. Rather than putting yourself in a place of feeling vulnerable and scared without your coping mechanism or crush, sit down and evaluate what feelings you’re so unhappy about.
The question that begins the emotional hunger healing process is: What is the feeling I am trying not to feel?
You have to be specific. If you actually want to change your life and circumstances, you have to be willing to look the demon in the eye and name it.
Once you understand what the feeling is, you then need to go through a process of discernment. In other words, it’s a matter of asking yourself: Is this real? Can I know for a fact that it is real? Often, the feelings that haunt us most are made up fears that we spend too much time trying to rationalize. When you try to rationalize an irrational fear, you give it more life. Instead, it’s more effective to work on remembering that it’s not reality.
If you are having a hard time figuring out what the feeling is or where it originated from, start in a meditation where you pinpoint the feeling in your body, and let it talk to you. You should instinctively know where it came from and what it means. If not, there are therapists that can help you do this, too.
Once you do understand what your root traumas are, you have to work on actually fulfilling yourself. This usually means that you no longer let the fears or worries of the past dictate your daily life. Trauma is being scared by something, but then never overcoming it. You have to either determine that the fear is irrational or come up with a way to face it and change your life so that it is not a threat anymore.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine what your life would look like if you weren’t ruled by these feelings:
1. What would I do each day if I didn’t have any anxiety or stress?
2. What is something healthy I do that makes me feel genuinely happy?
3. Where do I want to be in 5 years?
4. What daily actions would bring me to that place?
5. What action plans can I develop so that the fear of something happening isn’t ruling me anymore?
6. In what ways am I feeling exhausted and burnt out in life?
7. What would my ideal day realistically look like?
8. How can I bring more fulfillment and joy to my everyday life?
9. Do I need to make radical changes or subtle shifts?
10. Who can help me through this process?
You have to remember that it will be virtually impossible to overcome your eating issues until you feel emotionally safe. Think of it this way: there’s a phenomenon called “safety weight,” which people tend to put on when they feel they are in times of stress or uncertainty. Storing weight is the physiological way the body makes itself feel secure for the future.
You are not broken or irreparably damaged because you have had this struggle. What matters most is that you are willing to do the deep work – the real work – to feed your inner self. Human beings need love as much as they need anything else to be sustained. Without it, our spirits starve and try to compensate by consuming something else. Recognize that the most important thing is for you to find a sense of fulfillment and inner peace… and from there, everything else can fall into place.