Emotionally Triggered Eating

Emotionally Triggered Eating

May 2, 2022

A quick 5 step guide to help conquer emotionally triggered eating would be a lie. Cessation of emotional eating is not a trick or skill that be used in an “emergency” setting. To conquer this skill takes work and daily practice.  The skills to reduce or even stop triggered eating are cultivated in our daily habits, practices, and our ability to manage the daily ups and downs of life.

Emotionally Triggered Eating

The real problem here is not the food, it is the triggers and the emotions. The daily practice of navigating these two will make the difference in whether or not you will continue to be triggered or find yourself more emotionally centered.

The good news is you are not alone. Everybody has emotional triggers.  E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y.  If you are alive, you have emotional triggers. The difference is how they are managed.  How some people handle triggers are:

  • Eat
  • Distract themselves
  • Drink or use drugs
  • Scroll through social media
  • Complain or share with friends/spouses
  • Lash out at others
  • Dive deeper into their work
  • Journal or meditate
  • Workout
  • Worry or become anxious
  • Lay in bed/watch TV
  • sleep
  • Isolate themselves

For as many people as there are in this world, there are that many ways to manage emotional triggers. Chances are if you are reading this article, then food may be one of your coping strategies.

The concern is that continuing to cope with food is in direct opposition to why you chose to have weight loss surgery and your health/wellness goals in life.

We can do surgery, but we can’t change life.  Surgery cannot change finances, work, family obligations, relationships, or the environment around you.  At the end of the day, you still have to figure out how you want to function in LIFE!  Nobody else can do it for you.  And learning how to live life, the way you want, takes practice. 

Emotionally triggered eating is conquered by the day-to-day choices you make.  The word “practice” is specifically used because that is what it is. There will never be an endpoint and it takes applying the principles over and over to move forward.  It is not a one-time application of knowledge and BOOM your triggered emotions and subsequent eating are mastered.  Daily practice habituates your responses so the decision not to eat will be second nature. When a trigger hits, you will know exactly what to do. 

Trying to tackle the food first is smoke and mirrors; it will set you up for failure. Start by picking one first step in a lifelong journey:


Get comfortable with emotions, even the scary ones

When was the last time you allowed yourself to really feel something?  Many fear that once they let emotions out, then they will not stop.  “If I cry, it will never end.” Yes, it will, nobody has cried their entire life. Not all emotions are negative. Dampening your response to negative emotions also limits your capacity to feel the positive ones.

Consider joy, wonder, curiosity, or awe. When was the last time you felt one of those? When you do feel something come up, the first thing to do is to name it or identify it as a bodily sensation.  

According to Dr. Brene Brown, giving language to something takes away its power. Calling it what it makes it a little less scary.  Think to yourself, “there it is, this is what anger must feel like. I feel it in the pit of my stomach.”


Work through it

I highly recommend connecting with a therapist or counselor to help work through triggers and emotions.  It can be the best gift you give yourself.  Therapists are like clothes, you try them on until you find one that fits.  

Drs. Emily Nagasaki and Amelia Nagasaki in Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle (2019), explain that emotions have a beginning, middle, and an end. 

Failure to allow an emotion to complete can result in poor coping behaviors such as trigger eating.  Completing the cycle typically requires we “do a thing” or move our bodies.  Physical movement allows the stress/emotion to complete the flight/fight/freeze response to complete, giving you emotional release. There are simple things to add to your daily practice to help emotional cycles complete. They will help create emotional resiliency resulting in a decreased desire to cope with food.

  • Physical activity: “Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle.” (pg. 15). move your body, walk, dance, do yoga, and lift weights. Just do “a thing.” Or at the very least, when you feel an emotion that has been triggered, walk. 
  • Breathe:  Deep slow breaths down-regulate the stress response cycle. 
  • Positive social interaction: Have regularly scheduled get-togethers with friends or family who you enjoy being around. We, as a species, are social beings. We heal and grow in the community.  Humans are not meant to be isolated or withdrawn.  It should be noted, that community does not include interacting with social media groups.  Community means seeing real people in the flesh.  These relationships will provide a buffer when times are tough and be a support network for you. 
  • Cry, yell, scream whatever: Let it out in a safe place.  “Get it out, because once it is you are going to feel better,” Dr. Edith Eger in The Gift: 12 lessons to save your life. Emotions are scary.  The more you practice this, the easier it will become.
  • Creative expression: Create a daily practice of journaling, painting, or some sort of art.  Dr. Eger says “the opposite of depression is expression.”  Keeping emotions and thoughts at bay will eat us from the inside out.  Let it out.  Write it. If needed shred it or burn it after you are done. Whether you keep your words or not, the act of taking what is in your mind and putting it on paper is so very powerful. 


Identify your triggers

Pay attention.  Act as your own private investigator and be on the lookout for your triggers when they happen or even after the fact. Think to yourself “ah-ha, that’s it, that was a trigger!”  Keep a running list. Once you identify them, you can make decisions to avoid or manipulate them to not be so “triggering.” You have to be very proactive in this process. Some things you may be able to control, others you have to work for them not to control you. Examples may include:

  • Being around family or friends.  Going home for the holidays.
  • Work projects, meetings, or managers.
  • Sitting down and paying monthly bills.
  • The scale not moving despite your efforts. 


Stop the shame game

You cannot shame yourself into change. It just doesn’t work that way, but we try it over and over anyhow. This includes the should, would, must, and mustn’t. 

Oftentimes individuals who have had WLS are very good at self-shaming. All of the years of failed dieting, not feeling good enough, or being self-conscious have trained your brain to be comfortable with this inner dialogue. This is nonsense.  There is a high likelihood that the negative internal dialogue is triggering as well. Not all triggers are external.  When you catch yourself in these patterns of thinking/feeling, shift your thoughts, identify the trigger and help the emotion move through by any of the techniques listed in #2.  Shaming will never get you or anybody else where you want to be.

This is a journey not to be finalized or won. Be patient and kind with yourself.  There is not a finite endpoint for emotional trigger management. It is a lifelong journey hashed out in the day-to-day practices (listed above) we build into our lives. The more accurate goal is to feel more emotional stability in your day-to-day life.  You are response-able. You practice your ability to identify and respond to life.  This takes daily practice.  Use these techniques preemptively, before the emotional triggers hit. You want them to become a habituated automatic response.

There are always going to be emotions and new triggers.  At times you will be doing great and feel like you are on top of the world, and other times the world feels like it may be crashing down on you. This is life.  You are going to fall down, that is normal, all you have to do is try to make the next day a little better than today.  Give yourself time, but don’t give up.

Tina Musselman is the founder of "The Pointe - Profoundly Improving Lives" helping pre-op and post-op WLS patients.

Emotionally Triggered Eating
Tina Musselman


Tina Musselman is founder of "The Pointe - Profoundly Improving Lives" helping pre-op and post-op WLS patients set health and wellness goals. She has a BS Human Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Illinois at Chicago 2003 and has been working in weight loss, wellness and bariatric surgery since 2004.