When I first started helping clients whose major complaint was emotional eating—eating for emotional reasons when they really weren’t hungry—I assumed that the problem was caused by beliefs and conditioning, like most other behavioral or emotional problems.

But when all the beliefs and conditionings that appeared to be relevant had been eliminated, the problem usually was as bad as ever. At which point I went back to the drawing board.

I knew all about “classical” conditioning, in which a stimulus is conditioned to produce a behavioral or emotional response. So rejection or making a mistake can be conditioned to produce anxiety. Or being told what to do can be conditioned to produce anger. This type of conditioning was demonstrated by Pavlov’s dogs who were conditioned to salivate by the ringing of a bell. The Lefkoe Stimulus Process can easily de-condition this type of conditioning. But that type of conditioning didn’t seem relevant for emotional eating, which involves a behavior that seems compulsive.

There is another type of conditioning called “operant” conditioning. This type of conditioning is the result of rewarding or punishing a behavior. As a result you become conditioned to act in a certain way in order to achieve the “reward” or avoid the punishment. Merely desiring the reward results in the behavior.

In an earlier blog post about eating (October 13, 2009) I pointed out:

“… if every time you got upset as a child your mom gave you food to make you feel better, you could get conditioned to eat whenever you got upset in order to feel better.

“Or, if your parents continually rewarded you for special things you did as a child by giving you a special meal with the food you really liked, you could get conditioned to eat whenever you wanted to feel acknowledged for something you did.”

I finally realized that almost all emotional eating involves both types of conditioning.

So in order to help people with an emotional eating problem, I had to create a process that would easily, quickly, and permanently de-condition both “classical” and “operant” conditioning.

I started working on a process in 1997 and it took six revisions over the next 11 years before I finally had something that worked in most situations. I call it the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process (LDP) and I’ll describe how it works in a minute. The reason it took so long is that I wasn’t working with many individual clients and, even more importantly, the problems presented by the clients I did have didn’t need operant de-conditioning.

Then toward the end of last year a friend asked me to help him with his eating problem. I decided then to figure out how to permanently eliminate emotional eating, not just for him, but for others as well. So I worked with him and a few additional clients. Much to my surprise, in most cases there were very few beliefs involved. Their emotional eating was caused primarily by a combination of classical and operant conditioning. No wonder emotional eating has been so hard to stop and will power is so useless in the long run!

Consider this: first someone with an emotional eating problem conditions eating to produce emotional “rewards” (relieving anxiety or any other negative feeling, feeling loved, a sense of celebration, feeling calm, etc). In other words, the mere act of eating automatically results in emotional rewards. This classical conditioning would make it difficult enough to stop over-eating.

Then the problem is intensified by operant conditioning, where the behavior is conditioned to occur whenever there is a desire for the “reward.” In other words, merely desiring one of the emotional rewards (such as feeling loved, a sense of celebration, or feeling calm) will result in emotional eating, because you’ve learned that you’ll get this feeling each time you eat.

Behavior is conditioned by attributing need to a behavior that is not really needed. There is a shift from a behavior that occurred and then was arbitrarily rewarded, to a behavior that now occurs automatically and compulsively whenever you desire the reward (even if there is punishment following the behavior, such as gaining undesirable weight).

Operant conditioning is the emotional equivalent of a belief: You have the emotional sense that the behavior in question is the only way to get what you want. It’s like an emotional, rather than a cognitive, conclusion.

I now have four clients who say that their emotional eating has stopped completely as a result of all the de-conditioning they have done using the LDP.

One client reports that he hasn’t eaten except when he was actually hungry for over five months. And he doesn’t need to use will power; he just doesn’t feel like eating most of the time.

Another client wrote me:

“This is a terrific victory to not feeling compelled to eat all of the time. I actually have half bags of chips and cookies that I have had opened for several weeks—I have no desire for them now. It is wonderful.”

And another:

“I think about some really good homemade food in the fridge that I would normally pig out on and I just blow it off and think ‘Great. I’ll have that WHEN I AM HUNGRY.’ It is awesome to not be controlled by food.”

Here is a specific example from a client’s files that makes clear how this type of conditioning is created. One of the common emotional eating “sub-patterns” is “eating in order to experience love.” (Emotional eating is not a single problem, but the desire for 8-12 different emotional rewards, each of which lead to emotional eating.) This woman fed herself when she wasn’t feeling loved and wanted to feel loved.

As a child she frequently visited her grandmother, who always cooked a big meal for her and her family. As a little girl she experienced being loved by her grandmother when she ate everything on her plate.

So she got rewarded (she felt loved) when she ate. As a result she would feel loved whenever she ate. This is classical conditioning. And eating became conditioned so that she then compulsively ate whether she was hungry or not whenever she wanted to experience being loved. This is operant conditioning.

The Lefkoe De-conditioning Process includes what the Lefkoe Stimulus process does, namely it de-conditions stimuli so they no longer result in emotional responses. For example, eating will no longer produce positive emotional responses (other than satisfying hunger or enjoying the taste of food). In other words, eating will no longer produce the “rewards” it had produced in the past. In addition the LDP de-conditions the behavior so that merely desiring the emotional reward no longer automatically and compulsively leads to eating.

The essence of what makes the LDP so effective is having the client experience that she wanted the “reward” (e.g., feeling loved), not what got rewarded (e.g., eating). In other words, you want to get rid of loneliness or boredom, you don’t want to eat. It’s just that the eating produced that reward earlier in life. You want to numb your pain, you don’t want alcohol or drugs. It’s just that alcohol or drugs numbed you out earlier in life. You want attention, you don’t want to be sick. It’s just that being ill earlier in life got you attention. The client realizes that the reward is not contingent only on that particular behavior, but can be found in other ways.

When people use the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process to make these and other distinctions, both types of conditioning are de-conditioned. And the unwanted behavior stops. Permanently.

I’m really excited about these two breakthroughs. First, I developed a new theory that totally explains emotional eating: It is not a single problem but 8-12 different “rewards” that you eat to gain, and the emotional eating itself is caused both by classical and operant conditioning.

The second breakthrough is a single process that quickly, easily, and permanently de-conditions both conditionings.

If you’d like more information about how you can stop emotional eating or how the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process works, please contact me either at (415) 506-4472 or morty (at) lefkoeinstitute.com.

Please share any comments you have on the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process and how it can help people with eating issues and other conditioning problems.

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copyright © 2010 Morty Lefkoe