5 Emotions We Try to Numb with Food (and How to Stop)

“If music be the food of love, play on.” ~William Shakespeare

This quote holds a very special place in my heart.

Growing up, I was always surrounded by classical music. My grandfather loved the arts, and the first song I ever sang was “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.

I remember recognizing what it felt like to have a big voice come out of a tiny body, how powerful and scary that was.

Years passed, along with plenty of practicing and an expanded repertoire, and I found myself going to college to study vocal performance. This was where the power of my voice and what could come from it started to emotionally affect me.

I felt a lot of pressure to maintain my scholarship and pass classes like music theory, with which I deeply struggled, and the experience of being away from home for the first time was difficult for me. So I started to overeat, using food as a way to comfort myself.

At the time, I had no idea that I was using food to combat my emotions, and how that response was not only unhealthy for my body, but was a temporary Band-Aid to ease the current stressors in my life.

Instead of going out to parties every weekend, I felt comfort in ordering a pizza and watching a movie.

I eventually realized that in order to reach my healthiest potential I had to develop ways to identify and manage my emotions.

Emotions themselves aren’t “good” or “bad”; in fact, our emotions can be useful tools that let us know where we need to make changes in our lives. But they can become toxic based on how we respond to them.

I want to share with you five potentially toxic emotions that can lead to overeating and some ways I discovered to deal with them.


If you find that you’re constantly frustrated in your life, be it with school, work, or relationships, it can be easy to turn to food as a way to distract yourself from those feelings instead of dealing with the source of the feeling itself.

There is a reason the term “comfort food” exists, after all! Food is comforting, and in that moment it may help you mask those stresses and resentments, but then what?

A simple, and all too often overlooked method for dealing with frustration is just to breathe. Try to allow yourself just ten minutes at the end of your day to sit alone with yourself in silence, focusing on nothing but your breathing.

Taking some time to breathe will help you identify proactive things you can do to address your frustrations, and let go of things you can’t control. It’s an exercise that anyone can do; all it requires is that you give yourself permission to try.


I noticed that I would feel incredibly bored at night, after completing a day full of tasks.

Before I was aware of mindfulness and meditation, I would often sit alone and become overwhelmed with a sense of extreme boredom. This uneasy feeling was very easily resolved by ordering something yummy.

The key is to have something to focus on that is outside the scope of our daily responsibilities. Something that is entertaining or educational that can help us to relax in a productive or healthy way.

I highly recommend a coloring book. Yes, you heard me—coloring isn’t just for the little ones anymore. There are a number of fantastic options online, from downloadable templates to good old-fashioned books. It’s a sublime way to spend a little free time after a long day, and you have something beautiful to show for it afterward.

You might prefer a different hobby, like baking, crafting, photography, yoga, or playing an instrument. The goal is to choose something that’s engaging, and as an added bonus, it will likely be stress relieving, as well.


When I was struggling with eating emotionally, fear played a huge part. Fear of all of the things I had to do, fear of not being good enough, fear of messing up a note in front of 300 people.

Fear was also easily combatted by a familiar snack, but once that snack was done those feelings would come creeping back in again.

Instead, I found that writing was a more effective way to mute the angst. By journaling about my fears, I started to gain strength to face them. Writing helps you work through them, and also visualize ways of confronting them.


If you recall in the beginning of this article, I talked about how I would much rather sit at home and watch a movie with a pizza instead of going out to a party.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not being a party animal, but staying in as much as I did and using food as a friend was unhealthy.

I changed this habit by setting weekly hiking adventures or going to the movies, simple activities that I enjoyed, and loved to share with friends.

If you recognize that you’re feeling lonely, be proactive to address that. Call someone. Meet up with a friend to catch up. Go to a free local event to meet new people.


Shame for me would always rear its ugly head after I decided to eat a meal as a way of dealing with the other four feelings mentioned above. Shame would start creeping up as I was taking the last few bites.

“Why did you do that? You didn’t need all of that food,” I would think to myself. This continued until I acknowledged that it was my overeating magnifying the negative emotion I was trying to escape.

Learning to eat mindfully was truly eye opening, and I didn’t feel that crushing sense of shame anymore because I ate to feel satisfied, not to numb my feelings.

It also had the added benefit of teaching me to approach food with love again, and not as something sinful.

You might overeat in response to shame related to other events, for example, something hurtful you said or did.

Instead of turning to food, sit with the feeling, recognize what happened as a learning experience, and forgive yourself for being imperfect. We all make mistakes. That uncomfortable feeling won’t go away by stuffing the feeling down with food. It will only go away when you embrace it and cut yourself some slack.

What I learned through all of this is that being healthy and mindful is a life-long journey. Life isn’t always going to be easy, and there will be times when we will overeat or turn to things like food for an escape.

Perfection isn’t the goal here—the key is in the willingness to keep trying. That is one of the main things I hope you take from this. Love yourself enough to keep trying. Every emotion is an opportunity.

About Collin Christine McShirley

Collin Christine McShirley is the author of How I Broke Free from Dieting and The Remindful Food and Mood Journal. Her Authentic Eating Program supports losing weight in a healthy way. She has her masters in clinical psychology, certified from the centre for dieting and eating disorders, and specializes in emotional eating and mindful eating. Learn more at www.collinmcshirley.com.

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