Emotions are so pervasive in our everyday lives that it effects pretty much every behaviour that we do. Emotions allow us to notice and remember events that evoke feelings of joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain. It can also provide a motivational force for both extreme ends in human behaviour, and wields a powerful influence on reason and thoughts (Dolan, 2002). As such, emotions are super persuasive when it comes to all behaviours, both good and bad.
In the health and fitness space, emotions can impact how and why we eat. For example, we may eat heaps when we’re happy and celebrating an event or when we’re stressed. On the flip side, we may cease eating due to feelings of anger or frustration. However, it has been suggested that emotions themselves don’t necessarily stimulate change in eating behaviours; it is more about how that emotion is dealt with (Evers, Stok, & de Riddler, 2010). What’s more, the inability to manage unhelpful emotions can increase consumption of eating comfort foods and foods that are high in calories! Honestly, each emotion in relation to eating behaviours could have their own article dedicated to it, but for the purposes of this article, boredom eating will be discussed given that it is increasingly common and difficult for people to overcome.
So, what is boredom?
Boredom can be increasingly difficult to conquer. It is a feeling of “meh”, and really cannot be pinned down as either good or bad. It is more like being in a state of limbo and devoid of purpose. The cause of boredom can be boiled down to three types: 1) when we are prevented from doing an activity that we want to do, 2) when we are forced to do something we don’t want to do, and 3) when we simply can’t maintain engagement for some other reason (Cheyne, Carriere, & Smilek, 2006). Eating in response to boredom can be used as a method to relieve these types of boredom and regain purpose. For example, studies (e.g., Crockett, Myhre, & Rokke, 2015; Moynihan, et al., 2015) show that individuals who are prone to boredom can overconsume high calorie foods and treats in an attempt to reduce boredom. However, eating is not the only method that people use.
The desire to escape limbo can often come in the form of either escaping boredom (negative reinforcement) or to reward yourself (positive reinforcement). In fact, in one study by Havermans and colleagues (2015), participants were given a one hour boring documentary and participants had free access to either M&Ms (chocolate) or self-administer electrical shocks (!). The study found that while participants were more likely to eat more M&Ms, they were also more likely to shock themselves! This tells us that boredom eating, and other forms of reducing boredom, is an attempt to reduce monotony. Boredom can become problematic, particularly when a continuous stream of high calorie dense foods are consumed in order to escape boredom.
That's all well and good guy, but what can I do about it?!
Glad you asked! The first thing to do is to identify when you’re bored. While on the outset this can seem simple enough, it does take some effort to recognise thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are related to your own specific boredom. For instance, you may find that your leg bounces unconsciously, you may start feeling irritable, or find that your mind starts to wonder. While these aren’t necessarily universal indicators of boredom, it is worthwhile discovering your own specific indicators in order to ‘catch’ boredom early to prevent boredom eating. Of note, a good place to practice this is when you find yourself in front of the fridge or the pantry wondering what to eat. Ask yourself, “am I bored or hungry” and notice what your body and thoughts are telling you.
The second skill to use is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of being aware of the present moment and being aware of what is going on around you. The more that your behaviour is focused on a task, the less likely your thoughts will drift to thoughts of food. In particular, mindful/intuitive eating can be a useful practice in order to fully engage with your food, rather than allowing your food to seemingly disappear in a second. Mindful/intuitive eating may assist with psychological distress and improved eating behaviours (Bacon, Stern, Van Loan, & Keim, 2005; Dalen, et al., 2010).
|A third skill to use is to develop new associations and replacing habits. It is all too often that our eating behaviours are based on habits and cues. For instance, you get home from work after a busy day, it’s 5pm, and it’s couch and TV time. Obviously, before heading to the couch, you find yourself heading to the pantry for your favourite tasty food companion. Developing new associations and habits could include replacing high calorie dense food with lower calorie dense foods, engaging in some other active hobby than heading to the couch, or disrupting your pattern altogether where the cues (e.g. time of day, sights, smells etc.) have less impact (Gardner, 2015). Developing these new habits and cues may take some time to develop and will require some trial and error. If persevered however, this can assist in long-term healthy habits.|
In a pinch, the fourth skill of ‘willpower’ may be useful, but generally should only be used to halt powerful immediate impulses, such as preventing yourself from mindlessly attacking the donut tray that just passed by. Willpower is generally useful for the short term, particularly when establishing new habits, but is not adequate for the long term. The main reason for this is that willpower is thought to have limited supply and thus cannot be solely relied upon as the only method to reduce boredom and unhelpful eating habits* (Gailliot, et al., 2007).
I hope the above information helps with boredom eating, and let us know if any or all of the above has worked for you! Also, if you have any burning questions in anything exercise and psychology related, let us know at info@Dualist.com.au and we may turn it into a future article! If you would like further assistance for this or other psychology/exercise issues, please Contact us!
*Presently, I am aware that the concept of willpower (also known as ego depletion) is going through a bit of a revision at the moment. Will be updated in the future to reflect future understandings.
|David Simich is the principal exercise psychological specialist at Dualist. He is a fully registered psychologist and qualified personal trainer. Additionally, David is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society and World Obesity, and is internationally recognised for his obesity management expertise through the Strategic Centre for Obesity Professional Education. David’s qualifications consist of a Master in Applied Psychology (Murdoch University) and a Master in Exercise Science (University of Western Australia).|
Bacon, L., Stern, J. S., van Loan, M. D., & Keim, N. L. (2005). Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. American Dietetic Association, 105, 929-936.
Cheyne, J. A., Carriere, J. S. A., & Smilek, C. A. (2006). Absent-mindedness: lapses of conscious awareness and everyday cognitive failures. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 578-592.
Crockett, A. C., Myhre, S. K., & Rokke, P. D. (2015). Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating. Journal of Health Psychology, 20(5), 670-680.
Dalen, J., Smith, B. W., Shelley, B. M., Sloan, A. L., Leahigh, L., & Begay, D. (2010). Pilot study: mindful eating and living (meal): weight, eating behaviour, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 18, 260-264.
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Evers, C., Stok, F. M., & de Riddler, D. T. D (2010). Feeding your feelings: emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 792-804.
Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., . . . Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325-336
Gardner, B. (2015). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 277-295.
Havermans, R. C., Vancleef, L., Kalamatianos, A., & Nederkoorn, C. (2015). Eating and inflicting pain out of boredom. Appetite, 85, 52-57.
Moynihan, A. B., van Tilburg, W. A. P., Igou, E. R., Wisman, A., Donnelly, A. E., & Mulcaire, J. B. (2015). Eaten up by boredom: consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(369), 1-10.