When you feel stressed or upset, do you turn to food as a way to soothe your emotions? I’ve certainly done that. I remember one day, years ago, when I dealt with four suicidal patients, two violent teenagers, and two couples who hated each other. When I got home I felt like I deserved all seven of the chocolate chip cookies I ate!

As children we were loved, soothed, bribed, celebrated, and rewarded with food. On each of these occasions, an intricate network of brain systems and neurotransmitters is hard at work encoding these experiences—laying down new neural tracks connecting your reward center, the part of the brain that makes you feel pleasure, to your memory centers.

Each time you feel stressed and reach for serotonin-boosting junk foods, those nerve cell connections become stronger, and eventually they become so embedded within your brain that they become habits and unconscious responses.

Feel bad → eat a cookie → feel better
Do something good → eat pizza → feel great

For others, the encoding is tied to a traumatic event or series of events, such as physical or emotional abuse, an accident, or witnessing a disaster. During times of heightened stress, the brain’s memory centers shift into overdrive—the events, the emotions, and the way you ate to soothe yourself become etched into your unconscious. This can create a pattern of emotional overeating that you will feel compelled to repeat over and over again.

Your conscious mind knows what you need to do—eat right and exercise, for example—but your unconscious mind fights back. It resists rewriting that code that has been laid down over years and years.

The wrestling match between your conscious mind and unconscious mind sets you up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting—being good for a few days, weeks, or months then falling back into the old comfortable patterns that are making you overweight and unhappy. To get off the emotional overeating rollercoaster, you have to address this struggle inside your brain.

When referring to SPECT brain imaging, I like to say, “How do you know unless you look?” With emotional overeating, there’s an additional component. My colleague Larry Momaya, M.D., says, “How do you know unless you look into the unconscious mind?”