Emotional eating is a common response to stress. Do you find yourself reaching for comforting foods when you are stressed? You may also find that the harder you try to control emotional eating, the worse it seems to get. When you understand the forces behind emotional eating, you can see why it's so difficult to control and what works to free yourself from emotional eating habits.

Key triggers in emotional eating include early food conditioning and addictive food ingredients like sugar and salt.

The most significant factor in emotional eating is early food conditioning. Remember Pavlov's dog? Our automatic responses are conditioned responses. Think about it – when a baby cries, what's the first thing we do? Feed it! And our first foods are typically formula and cereal, which contain sugar and carbs. The baby is stressed,
gets fed, relaxes. As the cycle repeats, it becomes a conditioned response.

Food and beverages are also associated early in our lives with reward, punishment, family connection, celebration, mourning, and just about any emotional experience, we have. You might also use food to deal with boredom or procrastination. Is it any wonder that nearly every emotion or event can trigger an eating or drinking response?

Here is a personal example: On the way home from speaking to a group, I always had the urge to get ice cream. One night I saw the pattern and wondered where this urge was created. I realized that it was directly linked to my father taking me for ice cream to celebrate whenever I performed in a recital or event at school. With self-observation, I was able to see more and more of these early emotionally triggered food connections.

Once you notice the connection between an emotion and a particular food or behavior, the next step is to interrupt the pattern and substitute a healthier satisfying behavior. Trying to force yourself to stop the behavior or criticizing yourself for having the behavior will actually reinforce it.

When you push against your emotional eating habit it stimulates what I call the “inner adolescent.” That teen-aged part of us pushes back, saying, “I can do what I want”, or “Try and make me stop.” Instead of pushing against the conditioning, find a healthy, satisfying substitute that feels positive, relaxing or rewarding to you.

In my case, I decided to take a few moments in the car or hotel room to take some deep breaths, review and acknowledge the great experience I just had. I choose to celebrate the “sweetness” of those moments now by consuming the joy directly, rather than by using ice-cream as a substitute. Over time, I created a new healthy and satisfying habit to replace the old one.

Be patient and consistent. It may take a few repetitions of the new behavior to replace the old automatic reaction. Once you create a new conditioned response, it will also become automatic. Just like when you learned to ride a bike or drive a car, you had to think about how to do it in the beginning until the actions became automatic. New habits work the same way.

To recap, here are the three steps to effectively release emotional stress eating or drinking habits.

1. Notice your automatic emotional eating habit. Think about when it started and the meaning the food or behavior has for you. Realize that conditioned reactions are normal. Resist the temptation to push against the old habit or criticize yourself for having it.

2. Find a healthy substitute that feels rewarding, relaxing or gives you the satisfying feeling the original behavior gave you.

3. Practice using the new behavior until it becomes automatic. Be kind, patient and encouraging to yourself if you slip up. Over time, the new habit will become automatic.

Here is one more tip that can make the change easier. Learn the “Emotional Freedom Technique” (EFT). This is a simple tapping technique that can speed up the release of old conditioned behaviors and support new healthy choices. You can find information about EFT online and view my demonstration video along with others at http://www.youtube.com/ailaspeaks

Emotional stress eating or drinking habits are patterns formed early in life. Once you are an adult, you can observe where these habits started and choose to change them. You can create new healthy habits that are just as satisfying by using a simple three-step process along with kindness and understanding toward yourself.

Author's Bio: 

Aila Accad, RN, MSN is an award-winning international speaker, bestselling author and certified coach and EFT advanced practitioner & trainer, who specializes in quick ways to release stress and empower your life. A member of the National Speakers Association, she is a popular keynote speaker and radio and television guest. Her bestselling book "34 Instant Stress-Busters, Quick tips to de-stress fast with no extra time or money" is available at www.stressbustersbook.com Sign up for De-Stress Tips & News at www.ailaspeaks.com and receive a gift, "Ten Instant Stress Busters" e-book.