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Cope with Emotions with Kindness

Welcome to the 7th principle in the Intuitive Eating journey, coping with emotions with kindness. We have worked on many big things so far, tackling some topics that can bring up a lot of big emotions, and we must learn to handle them in a healthy, positive way. If you have yet to read through my posts on the first 6 principles of intuitive eating, you’ll want to head over to the blog and start from the beginning! We have tackled generations of diet culture and food rules, learned to listen to our bodies’ cues, and changed how we approach food. All that can be scary, and for those who use food to deal with challenging emotions, this can cause conflict.

Do you identify as an ‘emotional eater’?

Do you find that you struggle with overeating or eating just for something to do when you’re bored? 

Does food seem like the best solution when you’re feeling angry or stressed, only to realize it hasn’t helped at all?

If you answered yes, this blog post is for you, and I’m SO happy you’re here! Read on!

Coping with your emotions with kindness means finding non-food ways to tackle emotions, like stress, and boredom. Food is a completely valid coping mechanism, but it often doesn't address the root cause, and while it's necessary to acknowledge that you're allowed to use food to cope, it also shouldn't be the only coping mechanism you have. It can be very beneficial here to work with a licensed counselor to work on developing a more thorough toolbox of coping mechanisms, but for now we are going to talk about the food piece.

This post will explore food as a coping mechanism, why you might be turning to food in times of high emotion, and other coping skills that you can start to consider. Giving you options other than food to manage your stress, anger, and boredom. This will further improve your relationship with food by reducing its hold on you, and let you choose your foods more intentionally while still listening to your body and enjoying what you eat. In my 1:1 coaching, we dive deep into emotional awareness and create a personalized toolbox. This is a sneak peek at what that looks like, and if you want to learn more, see how you can work with me here!

**It is essential to say here that developing this toolbox of coping mechanisms might be rough as you explore possible triggers and traumas. If you are struggling with a lot of big, overwhelming feelings and negative thoughts, please seek help locally or online with a licensed counselor.

Food as a coping mechanism

Turning to food for comfort is normal because we are designed to be soothed by it, so we naturally gravitate towards food in emotional times. Food triggers the reward system in the brain, releasing feel-good hormones. Food helps reduce the stress response, physiologically calming down your body. It is also stimulating and something to occupy your senses, and it acts as a distraction from the emotion. Restriction does a similar thing with an opposite approach. It may give you a feeling of control over your body and your life, distract you from the current situation, and provide you with an outlet. 

When it comes to eating as a coping mechanism, the pros are obvious, but the cons might be more subtle, hurting you mentally and physically. The effects are slow, which is why we keep returning. If you are restricting or overeating, you might be damaging your body both physically and mentally. Restricting can affect everything from your digestive system to metabolism and lead to uncontrollable cravings. Overeating often leads to discomfort, unwanted weight gain, and digestive issues, leading to the guilt and shame cycle. When you ignore hunger or fullness cues, they can be disrupted, interfering with your connection with your body. Effects vary, but for the most part, they can leave lasting damage.  

As I said before, it’s okay to use food in these situations to cope, but it shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism. It takes a lot of work to develop emotional awareness, but the intention is to find an action that helps directly respond to the emotion you are feeling, and most of the time, food is not that thing. You want to find other helpful actions so that when you decide to use food as a coping mechanism, you do so consciously. Before you can start to shift the behavior, you must understand why food is helping you cope in the first place. 

Whether overeating or restricting, you are trying to solve a problem with that action. So you want to explore that by asking questions like: How do I use food as a coping mechanism? What are the pros and cons of my actions? How does it help? Does it negatively affect me?

Shifting your approach 

The shift you want to create is finding more kind ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues.  Anxiety, loneliness, stress, boredom, and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. We can not eliminate them. We can only learn to manage them. Since food alone won’t fix any of these feelings, you’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion. 

With any change, it needs to start with awareness. You need to spend time learning about what emotions you are actually feeling, what things lead to those emotional responses, and the ways that you would prefer to respond. The key here is WITHOUT judgment. Just work on awareness. 

Emotions can be heavy and overwhelming, and the self-work can be challenging, but the benefits outweigh the work.  The ultimate goal here is to manage your emotions and your feelings, processing them in healthy and sustainable ways by creating a coping mechanism toolbox to turn and pull something out of when things are rough. Remember, all these complicated feelings and the habits you want to break took years to build, and they won’t be fixed overnight. Start the process by granting yourself the space to heal and time to do the work. 

Getting to a place where food isn’t the very first thing you turn to when you are working through a difficult emotion is possible for you too. Inside my coaching I empower my clients, just like you, to take Intuitive Eating beyond the kitchen so that you can unlock the ability to stop second guessing every meal, discover self compassion, and finally begin to feel at home in your body.

When the feeling of guilt comes up after overeating, when you are experiencing negative self-talk every time you step in front of the mirror, or when you are faced with the temptation of starting a new diet every monday, my program is unique because it is founded on support and accountability. You will have me there with you every step of the way. I understand you because I was you.

If you are curious about implementing this in your life, I invite you to join me. Your first step starts with filling out an application so we can chat and figure out if my coaching is the best fit for you.

4 steps to coping with emotions without food


The first thing you want to examine are your basic self-care needs. Sometimes, it can be the smallest things that push your buttons the hardest. Things like sleep, work/life balance, and lack of movement can make you feel stressed and anxious. 

Lack of proper hydration and nourishment can play a big role as well. When you are not taking in the right nutrients, your body might send confusing signals. Like feeling angry when you are starving or giving you brain fog because you haven’t had enough water. Remember that self-care needs to be planned into your regular schedule. You can’t wait until things start to go wrong to incorporate self-care. 

This can be anything that provides your body with nourishment and care. Some examples might include walking, drinking enough water, doing your skincare routine, doing your hair, booking a massage, dance to music in the kitchen, have a chat with a close friend, sing along to music in your car, read a book or watch a favorite movie, cook something tasty, the list goes on.

Feel Your Feelings  

Often, when you are using food to cope, you are doing it to bury the emotions and hide from them. This feels like it helps in the moment, but it won’t get you far. Sometimes, you have to sit with those emotions, feel them, and express them. Learning to sit with feelings takes time. You must identify your feelings and ask yourself what you need. It takes time to build your emotional muscles! Practice!

This is going to look different for everyone. Some choose to explore their emotions with another person, and others prefer to explore them alone. If you are the latter, you might ask how you do this. Of course, you can sit, feel, and process, but if this feels awkward, you can try a healthy outlet. Depending on your mood, interests, and energy levels, there are a lot of healthy activities that can help you.  If you want to quietly explore those emotions, journaling or art therapy can give you the space and time to process your feelings. 

When processing heavy emotions, I like to give my whole body an outlet with movement.  Gentle yoga, or stretching, is excellent for helping you relax and bring your mind to focus. Running, boxing, or lifting can help you shake off excess energy and anxiety or stress. Moving your body while dealing with the emotions can help keep you feel more connected to your body. 

Helpful distraction

Sometimes, emotions are high, and you won't have the capacity to sit in the feelings or focus on self-care activities - this is where distraction is necessary and helpful. In this case, you will permit yourself not to be with your feelings. Intentionally acknowledge that they are there and then set them aside for when you do have the capacity. 

There are a lot of ways that you can distract yourself without food. Find a hobby, clean your house, walk the dog. Put on music or a good show or movie. Let yourself be carried away by a good book or complete some tasks on your to-do list. If you often eat for distraction, having a list of alternative actions is a good idea. Write it down where it is accessible and you can see it. 

Eat the food

Again I want to say that food, when used intentionally, can still be a good tool for dealing with some emotions. I don’t want this to feel like another “food rule” or restriction. Check that you are not using distractions to ignore actual hunger. If everything above doesn’t work and you are still focused on the food, honor that. Recall from our conversations on hunger that you can be craving food for more than just hunger; the taste or feel might be the only thing that will fill that unmet need. 

Additionally, if you are practicing mindful eating, the act of gathering and preparing the food, the ritual of the meal, and the clean-up afterward can all be part of the therapeutic process. It can be a distraction, and the noises and the smells might be soothing. I personally struggle to feel sad when I can smell cookies baking in the oven. 

If you want to get creative, there are some fun ways to work out your feelings with food. You can choose something that requires heavy kneading, pressing your emotions into the dough. Or something that needs to be beaten quickly with your whisk. Crush nuts or chocolate bars with a small hammer. Whatever feels right for you. 

Food is such a big part of our lives. You need it to live, and it makes life worth living. It is joy and comfort and connection (recall my recent post on satisfaction). It can be a positive force, or it can control you… and only you can decide what role it gets to play. You are giving yourself freedom by learning to listen to your body, naming your emotions, and building your toolbox of coping mechanisms. Food can help soothe you, improve your mood, and fill more needs than just hunger, but even food has it’s limits when we are trying to cope with other emotions. Shifting your approach and finding new ways to deal with your emotions will help you build your connection with your body, rekindle body trust, heal and grow. Intuitive eating depends on trusting yourself, understanding your emotions, and doing what’s right for you. 

Knowing yourself and your triggers can bring up a lot of heavy emotions, and it is essential to remember that you are never alone on this journey. If you are trying to heal your relationship with food and learn to cope with your emotions, please reach out. 

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