“The pain seems so much more difficult than the cookies. But it’s not. The pain covered in cookies becomes pain covered in fat covered in more pain.” ~Brooke Castillo
Do you ever eat when you’re stressed, sad, tired, alone?
Bag of chips after a hard day?
Ordering the take-out when your partner’s away?
Seven years ago, my newborn baby cried every evening.
I’d feed her, change her, and blow raspberries on her neck. Still, she screamed—like a smoke alarm you couldn’t stop.
I tried singing to her, burping her, begging her…
I felt useless, desperate.
In my journalism job, before maternity leave, I’d often doubted my capability. But my new job as a parent? Totally out of my depth.
I envied my husband, swanning off to the office. The second he got back, I’d thrust the howling baby at him.
“Tell me what to do!” he’d yell over the din.
At my wits’ end, I’d put on the sling, wrestle her in, and head into the Berlin streets.
If I bounce-walked, muttering “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to sleep we go” four billion times, she’d sleep. Then I’d feel like I deserved a medal. Or, failing that… an ice cream? (My district was renowned for boutique ice cream shops.) Black cherry and mascarpone! Perfect.
“Dinner’s ready,” my husband would say when we got back. I’d wipe my chin. Afterward, I’d be mega full.
First few times it happened, I promised myself I’d nix the habit before anyone noticed. But every day from then on, when the witching hour arrived again, you know where I’d go. Before long, I knew every kiosk, every flavor, and often ran to double scoops.
Honestly? I was overeating at home too.
When my baby girl dozed off breastfeeding, I didn’t dare move a muscle. I’d sit there, peeling slices of Emmental out the packet.
It was fifteen years since I’d recovered from binge eating and bulimia, so this new eating problem was scary. Plus, my post-baby waist already bulged over my leggings.
Over the next couple of months, I Googled emotional eating tips for what to do instead.
I tried substituting healthier snacks, but ate whole bags of carrots and prunes.
I tried to “feel my feelings” more, but as I wallowed in self-pity, I wondered if I was doing it right.
I talked to my friends. Over coffee and cake, of course.
I read a book about mindful eating. On my phone, over lunch.
The fact is, I was just trying superficial fixes, without understanding how my mind worked.
When I finally understood how emotions fuel our behaviors, it changed not just my eating, but my handling of life too. I even lost my baby weight, eventually.
But more importantly, my emotional eating has shown me how to manage my mind.
So, if you’re eating when you’re not hungry, whether through stress from parenthood or something else, this is for you.
Let me show you where I got confused so you can solve your eating more easily. Because solving emotional eating isn’t complicated. It only seems hard because we get it mixed up with self-judgment, and because we think we need to take the stress away to stop the eating.
Confusion 1: I spent time dealing with feelings that were just drama, not the real scary emotions.
I probably should have cried more after my baby screamed so much. But I didn’t want to scare her.
I would have liked to kneel on the floor and wail with exhaustion, and anger at the rejection I felt. Those were my heartfelt feelings. Real, raw, ugly, unflattering and immature, but true.
By eating instead of feeling, I brushed those emotions under the carpet. And then covered the area with more mental mess: food-related self-doubt, regret, blame, failure, victimhood, despair, more eating.
I’m not saying decluttering your brain of food drama is a waste of time—actually, in the process we learn to cut ourselves some slack, and that’s golden.
But the shame from all the self-judgment is only the surface layer of mess, and ultimately, you have to aim to clean deeper.
Feel deeper. Feel beyond guilt.
Confusion 2: Believing it’s wrong to use food to numb your feelings.
I hold my hands up: eating ice creams was pure escape. Afterward, I’d feel like I’d abandoned myself and my baby. That didn’t feel right, but it doesn’t make it wrong.
If you’re eating to avoid your emotions, you’re not naughty, or bad, or wicked, or greedy, or weak.
Sure, in an ideal world, we’d eat when we were genuinely hungry, not just craving relief. But eating when you’re physically hungry is a skill, not a rule. You have to learn skills. Not just beat yourself up.
“I didn’t need to eat. Why do I always do this? I’m getting fat.”
It makes no sense to bully yourself into changing when you’re still figuring out how. It’d be like me yelling at my baby for not being able to communicate with words.
My husband laughed once when I called myself an emotional eater. He was like: “What is that?”
So I could ask that too, and tell myself: “I’m not sure what’s going on yet, but bit by bit, I’m going to understand this.”
Confusion 3: Labeling yourself as a problem person if you eat in a disordered way.
I kept having this thought:
I can’t help it, it’s my personality. I had eating disorders.
To be fair, I did act like an addict.
I mean, one minute I’d be breastfeeding. And the next minute I’d come to my senses with an empty muesli box on my side table and wheat flakes crusted onto my pajamas.
And I’d go: What is wrong with me??
So I Googled. Took personality tests on the internet. Felt helpless and doomed.
Then, I read something cool: “Your personality is just a collection of habits.” Bingo! I didn’t have to label myself an “overeater” or a “binge eater” or “an addict,” which made me feel bad about myself and made it harder to stop.
For now, I could just be “someone who overeats sometimes.”
The grace I gave myself when I said that washed through my body like a relief.
From thereon in, I started figuring it out, one tiny change at a time.
Confusion 4: Playing wac-a-mole with triggers.
A habit, as I’m sure you know, is a chain reaction. Something sparks a thought that food would be good. That trigger can be a feeling, a time of day, that buttery croissanty smell…
So, you might think you’re at the mercy of whatever presses your buttons and start trying to avoid your triggers. But tiptoeing around triggers isn’t the answer.
First: not practical. Avoiding your mum because she mentions your weight. Walking past Delice de France with a clothes peg on your nose.
Second: pointless. Why? Because the reason your emotional eating began isn’t the reason you keep doing it.
Let’s go back to Berlin—I want to show you how my emotional eating habit evolved.
The first day I went out with my crying baby, I wasn’t intending to eat ice cream. I saw the Eis kiosk, and I thought, “I want something for myself.” That day and that day only, there was a fully conscious decision.
My brain took notes. After that, any time I felt less-than, it said, “Let’s eat again! That was easy!” Pretty soon, I was eating whenever I felt rubbish.
Eating biscuits, overwhelmed by my messy flat.
Eating biscuits, resentful of others’ great sleep.
Eating weird instant soup, because I’d run out of biscuits.
You can’t eradicate triggers. You’d have to solve life. But breathe. You don’t have to.
The solution to emotional eating is to not rush to solve anything.
When I was stress eating in Berlin, I was so busy trying to solve my stress—or eating—I wasn’t really paying attention to the thoughts or feelings in each moment.
It was all flying under my radar in a hailstorm of pretzel crumbs and salt crystals.
I started noting the actual sentences that I’d told myself in the moments before I had overeaten. Sometimes I just wrote a word in a circle. A feeling. An urge!
Bit by bit, I realized, I’d avoided my feelings because I thought it was bad of me to have them.
For instance, I resented the enormous responsibility and daily duty of caring for a baby, and feared my creative, rock ‘n roll life was over—but I dismissed that feeling as selfish.
I envied my husband for going to work and I missed my ambition—but I judged that sadness and jealousy as “ungrateful.”
I desperately missed getting praise, or pay, or achieving things on a to-do list—but I cringed at my neediness for someone else to tell me I was doing a good job.
Turns out, I did want something for myself. Not just an ice cream! An identity beyond motherhood.
But with self-judgment so harsh, I can see why I couldn’t admit those feelings.
I didn’t need to express my true feelings—to paint huge canvases, or sing my lungs out in my car.
Or shove them down.
Or spend any time on a psychiatrist’s couch exploring the gaps in my own upbringing.
Or instantly solve them.
I just had to live with the dilemma for a while. Acknowledge the emotional conflict. I needed to witness it.
Same as I had to be there for my daughter.
I couldn’t stop her crying! She got born, she wasn’t cool with that, and I don’t blame her—it’s a pretty exposing, vulnerable business being alive.
My job was just to hang in there with her, going, “I know you’re crying, I’m here, I can’t make it better, but I’m not going to abandon you.”