How to Stop Eating When You’re Bored
Boredom eating is an incredibly common eating behavior, one I would have to say pretty much everyone engages in at some point in their life. Personally, I have done a ton of boredom eating in the midst of heavy COVID days.
In the past couple of years especially, I’ve noticed more clients sharing that they’re struggling with boredom eating. As many of us moved from office environments to work from home, with more access to snacks and less access to other people and stimulation, food often filled the gap.
I think it’s really important to preface this post with a reminder that not only is boredom eating a common eating behavior, it’s also not a “bad” thing to do. There’s a ton of shame around boredom eating, shame that isn’t warranted – nor is it very helpful when you’re trying to reduce boredom eating.
However, it can become a problem when it’s the only tool you’ve developed to cope with boredom, or if it’s making you feel crappy by interfering with your ability to feed yourself well.
So, what causes boredom eating anyways?
Boredom eating is a type of emotional eating. Just like you might turn to food to help soothe stress or anxiety, or to cheer yourself up when feeling down, you might also turn to food to provide stimulation when you’re bored. When I talk to clients about emotional eating, I often reference the widow of tolerance, a concept developed by psychiatrist Dan Siegel. The window of tolerance describes a “zone” of nervous system activation in which one is best able to function in everyday life. Some situations can activate the hyperaruse, or “fight or flight” response, where one may experience panic, anxiety, fear, hypervigilance, or anger. Other situations can cause the nervous system to be hypoaroused, which is associated with depression, fatigue, emptiness, and disassociation. Hypoarousal is often caused by a sort of nervous system “burnout” from hyperarousal – think of the crash one might experience after a panic attack.
While the emotions I just described might sound intense for a group facebook post on boredom eating, it’s important to remember that nervous system activation occurs on a scale. Boredom is associated with hypoarousal, or being on the lower range of one’s window of tolerance, so it makes sense that you might seek something to activate your nervous system a bit and bring yourself back into the window of tolerance, or prevent it from dropping further. That’s where food and boredom eating comes in.
I share all this to help you appreciate the role that boredom eating can play, and the spectacular creativity us humans have when trying to regulate our nervous systems. I hope it gives you a bit of self-compassion for the times you’ve struggled with boredom eating! See – this is why I love science so much! Lol.
How to Stop Eating When You’re Bored
Make sure you’re eating enough during the day.
Sometimes boredom eating isn’t actually boredom eating – sometimes it’s real, physical hunger. Because hunger can present as fatigue or difficulty concentrating, it’s not uncommon to mistake snacking or grazing out of hunger for boredom eating. If you’re trying to stop boredom eating, first make sure you are eating enough throughout the day. While that amount varies from person to person, from day to day, in general that means eating something every 3-4ish hours, and including “The Gang” -> Remember yesterday’s post??! 😉
If you’re hungry, eat something that satisfies.
If you recognize that you’re actually feeling hungry, or if it’s just been a few hours since you last ate, try to eat something that’s actually satisfying. Often I see clients grab a handful or something, or a small snack that doesn’t really satisfy (I call this air food). While a small snack might be helpful when you’re feeling bored, it’s unlikely to satisfy. Sometimes what people identify as boredom eating is actually the grazing that occurs when they don’t choose something that’s satisfying enough to actually address the level of hunger they’re experiencing.
Identify vulnerable times for boredom eating.
Look back and identify times you are more likely to boredom eat. Here’s some common ones I hear from clients:
- After work
- When completing boring tasks or a tedious project at work
- At night before bed
- When a partner/spouse is out of town
When you know times during the day that you’re more vulnerable to boredom eating, it’s easier to plan something in advance to provide alternative tools. Which brings us to my next tip…
Create a toolbox for boredom eating.
Essentially, a toolbox is a list of other self care techniques, activities and tools you can utilize to cope with an uncomfortable emotion (I posted a bunch of self-care techniques during our first week here!). I use the toolbox analogy as a reminder that there are lots of tools you can use, and some may work better for different tasks than others. Eating can be one tool in the toolbox, but just as you wouldn’t expect a wrench to fix everything that can go wrong in your house, we need to fill up our toolbox with other tools.
Remember to practice your mindful eating.
How many times have you boredom ate, but only realized it after the fact? It’s hard (impossible?) to change a behavior you don’t realize you’re doing. Remember to practice being mindful with tuning into your hunger cues to actually have a chance to stop eating when you’re bored.
Give yourself grace when you eventually do boredom eat.
Remember, boredom eating is normal human eating behavior. When it is harming versus helping, it may be a behavior you decide to address. But as a human being, you will almost certainly turn to food as a way of coping with boredom again. The key is greeting it with grace, and getting curious rather than judgmental about it.