We all eat emotionally to a certain extent. Food is social, it holds memories, and we feel comfort, satisfaction and pleasure from it. I encourage you to eat with emotion—that is, let your food be meaningful and satisfying—as opposed to emotional eating, which can become an issue when you use food to consistently distract from or numb uncomfortable emotions.
Emotional eating is much more common than some realize, and can feel absolutely overwhelming to the person trying to make sense of it. It’s really easy to blame the food, becoming rigid and restrictive with which foods are allowed in the house or on a diet plan. Unfortunately, this only works to increase emotional distress, feelings of deprivation and cravings for the very foods that may be felt to be problematic. Restriction breeds rebellion. In my experience there are two ways to work effectively with emotional eating. They compliment and support each other while also being their own unique skill or tool:
- Feel the emotion
- Avoid emotional reactivity
Feel the emotion
Imagine that a two-year-old is trying to get your attention. She may start by saying your name or tapping you on the leg. What happens if you don’t answer? If you have experience with two-year-olds you know that she will get louder and louder and more obnoxious until you answer. However, if you had responded the first time, it’s likely she just needed to be listened to, validated, helped and then sent on her way.
The same could be said for your feelings and emotions. The more you ignore them, the bigger they get. The middle part of your brain, called the limbic system, is responsible for processing emotions. In his book Mindsight, Dr. Dan Siegel (a professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of Mindsight Institute) teaches the reader about a technique called “name it to tame it.” Neuroscience has found that naming the emotion, for example saying, “I feel sad,” can actually decrease the stress response in the brain. When you name it, your brain increases soothing neurotransmitters which are sent to your limbic system to calm it down. The very act of moving toward the emotion, naming it and aiming to understand it decreases its power over you.
A big hurdle to doing this is the very common propensity of judging yourself for how you feel. Maybe you think that you shouldn’t feel frustrated, so you avoid acknowledging it. Maybe you think you should feel happy, so you avoid acknowledging your true emotion. I encourage you to separate who you are from what you feel. Please note that in our “name it to tame it” example above we used the phrase “I feel sad” not “I am sad.” Feelings, thoughts, and emotions are only activity of the mind, not who you are. Acknowledging them actually gives you a chance to be transparent, honest and authentic and move toward growth and healing.
Another hurdle is identifying how you truly feel. If you say “I am angry” and don’t feel the calming neurotransmitters doing their job, it may be because you didn’t identify the true emotion. Maybe you feel hurt which is making you feel angry. Aim to understand and validate rather than judge and react.
Why is feeling the emotion important? Because if you can move toward the emotion then you won’t need to move way from it… and toward food.
Avoid emotional reactivity
The second technique is aimed at avoiding crisis mode—where all logic, reason and level- headedness leaves. In working with clients I find there are very specific triggers for emotional reactivity.
First, you don’t stand a chance against emotional eating if you aren’t eating consistently, regularly, and adequately. It’s very difficult to think cohesively, rationally and clearly when you are overly hungry. Our brains only burn glucose for energy, so if blood sugar levels are dropping, you can expect that not much fuel is getting to your brain. If you are prone to emotional eating already, feeling overly hungry just creates the perfect storm.
I encourage you to eat balanced meals (carbohydrate, protein, fat, fruit and/or vegetable) three times a day, adding snacks between if meals are longer than 3-4 hours apart. I am certain that you will feel more level headed in many areas, including with food. Skipping meals might make you feel like you are saving time, but I assure you it’s only backfiring.
Second, establish clear work-life boundaries. If life feels out of balance, it’s easy to become burnt out, drained and reactive. I encourage you to set clear boundaries, being sure to include time for your own personal hobbies and passions. Be realistic and appropriate in setting those boundaries, but do set them.
Third, find ways to be proactive in self-care to avoid “crisis mode”. You CAN handle what life throws at you, if you cultivate resilience regularly. This will mean different things to different people, but some good examples might include taking regular breaks during the day to get up and stretch, turning on music while you work, put a project aside for a bit to work on something less draining (but still feel productive), practice time management by planning your day ahead of time, start your day with meditation and/or prayer to feel connected and grounded, eat meals away from your desk, set regular sleep patterns, and make time for physical activities you enjoy.
I hope you see that your emotions, feelings and well-being matter. Being too busy for them or pretending they don’t matter is likely manifesting in emotional eating. See it as a sign that coping strategies and self-care behaviors are inadequate and take steps to support yourself.
Check out our Southern Utah Health & Wellness Directory at www.stghealth.com