If you struggle with overeating at night you’re not alone. About 99% of the people that come to our classes tell us that evenings are – hands down – the hardest time of the day.
Once the late afternoon, dinner time, and evening unfolds, they find themselves comfort eating, eating beyond the point of fullness, grazing in the kitchen, or bingeing.
Overeating is rooted in instinct and emotion
It helps to look more closely to see what’s going on.
According to my mentor, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, most of our behavior is rooted in instinct and emotion. In the case of nightime eating, one of the reasons why we overeat at night is because we’re feeling more stirred up.
We don’t necessarily have more emotions at night. But we’re often more aware of them and feel them more acutely at this time.
During the day, we’re often busy with work, errands, or other tasks. There’s a natural numbness that occurs when we’re in ‘work’ mode.
But when we come home and ‘let down,’ this numbness softens. The emotions that were stirred up during the day – but that were under the veil of numbness – begin to thaw.
How emotion stirs us up
This is good – to be emotionally and psychologically healthy, we want our defenses to soften. We want to ‘come down’ and feel!
But now, all the frustrations from the day are stirring us up.
We may feel loneliness and long for connection. For many of us, evening is when our ‘attachment hunger’ – our desire for contact and closeness – is the highest.
And we often feel alarmed by our feelings themselves.
So we may eat to soften the alarm. Or we may eat to bring a sense of warmth and closeness, or to neutralize the edge of our frustration.
In all three of these examples, we’re not eating our feelings so much as we’re being moved by our feeling.
There’s much more we can explore about how emotions move us, the instincts under overeating, and the challenges of nighttime eating.
For now, I want to offer a couple things that can help.
What can help
1. Name what’s going on. Being able to ‘frame’ and name our experience – I’m feeling that end of the day loneliness again – orients us to ‘what’s going on.’ This helps our left brain ‘steer the ship’ rather than festering in a place of worry.
It’s one of the reasons why I offer When Food is Your Mother. Over the years, I’ve seen how much people’s anxiety lessens when they begin to understand the instincts and emotions that drive overeating.
Understanding softens anxiety. And understanding breeds insight: the principles and actions that can help.
2. Bring in your right brain relating. Your right brain is the domain of connection and relationship – the empathy, warmth, and understanding that helps us feel cared for and accompanied, rather than isolated and alone.
So bring in warmth and caring to your ‘map of understanding.’
I really like how therapist Bonnie Banedoch’s does this: “I can see how this part of me is feeling really overwhelmed and lonely and wants to eat. I wonder what can help her?”
We all thrive with warmth! When we feel held in warmth and caring we can move out of self judgment and into compassion. Which brings us to #3.
3. Add support, rituals and structure. One of the most common mistakes I see people make with evening eating is ‘trying harder.’
They have really sincere intentions! But then they get frustrated with themselves when they continue to overeat or binge after dinner.
This frustration can easily lead to self criticism, hopelessness and self attack.
It’s a sea of shoulds: “I should be able to stop eating after dinner. I should be able to do better. I should be able to stop eating when I’m full.”
Instead of trying harder, I encourage you to let go of the shoulds, face reality, and step sincerely and humbly before the moment.
Dr. Neufeld calls this the adaptive process.
You’ll find that evenings feel less stressful (and that you’re much more capable) when you kindly face reality on its own terms: “Ah! This is really hard for me. I need more help.”
It’s like stepping outside and seeing that the temperature has dropped. Rather than trying to change the weather – or tough it out in the cold – you notice the coolness, then move to put on a coat.
Bring in support
There are many ways to get help: some people need a lot of structure at the end of the day. Others need deeper connection to their food, like blessing their meal.
Some people need more personal connection for the loneliness that naturally arises at night. Others need rituals and routines to ‘hold’ them, like brushing their teeth after dinner to signal the end of the meal.
There are many ways you can bring in support, and your creativity can be endless. I encourage you to experiment, to ask within, and see what helps.
As a healer once told me, ‘you deserve all the support you need.’
Image credit: A Waterfall, Moonlight, Ralph Albert Blakelock, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art