Emotional Eating: 6 Steps to Freedom
Are you an Emotional or Stress Eater?
It makes perfect sense that human beings would turn to food for comfort. When we were babies and we cried, what happened? Breast or bottle = instant comfort. Later, when we skinned a knee or were bored, sad or in any way uncomfortable, our parents may have (with the best intentions of course!), given us a treat to make us feel better or distract us from feeling our feelings. This, inadvertently, led us to engage in unhealthy behaviors to cope with those feelings, and thereby fail to acquire the tools needed to comfort ourselves.
It also makes sense that food would be the perfect device for soothing such intense emotions or even ennui. Why?
- It’s abundant.
- It’s cheap.
- It’s socially acceptable.
- It really works (albeit short-term).
Think about other types of addictions or vices employed to deal with stress and emotions, and you’ll discover that above all others (drugs, gambling, obsessive shopping, drinking etc.), food is the most acceptable and accessible, and often becomes ones “drug of choice”.
The fact that everything above may be true doesn’t negate the fact that emotional and stress-related eating causes us enormous angst. The symptoms that follow this behavior include physical, cognitive and emotional distress. Ironically, the solution we choose to deal with these unsettling feelings, (eating), exacerbates these negative emotions exponentially. We are filled with shame, we berate ourselves for not being able to “figure this out already”, and we may have GI distress as well as sleep disorders. This is true both as a short-term and long-term consequence of binging and emotional eating. This vicious cycle leaves us feeling more hopeless and entrapped than ever.
What if I were to tell you that you could take a detour from this path? You’d be skeptical but intrigued, right?
While it takes commitment, investment and planning, as well as stepping out on that treacherous limb sometimes causing “discomfort”, I know that this is something every person can accomplish.
Here are 6 actionable and specific measures you can take TODAY to get off the emotional eating roller coaster.
- Stop, Look and Listen – When you feel compelled to eat, stop for a minute (before instinctively grabbing), look around you and notice your environment, and why you might be having intense feelings. Are the kids fighting, was there a traffic jam, did you come home to find a mess in the house?). Finally, LISTEN – listen to your body, ask if it’s experiencing physical cues of hunger, or if this is just emotional hunger overtaking you.
- Once you’ve determined if this is a physical or emotional hunger, do your best to honor whichever it is. If it’s hunger, then eat a macro-nutrient balanced snack (healthy fat, complex carbohydrates and lean protein combo, i.e. rice cake with turkey and smashed avocado). If it’s stress or emotions driving your need to eat, go to paragraph #3.
- Allow your nervous system to go from Sympathetic Dominance to Parasympathetic dominance. Sympathetic dominance is our “fight or flight” mode. Parasympathetic dominance is our relaxation response. We simply cannot effectively digest and assimilate our food if we literally feel like a lion is chasing us when we eat. Start by sitting down and taking 3-5 deep breaths with your eyes closed. Don’t eat anything until you’ve done this.
- Next, try to Surf the Urge. What is this? Well, imagine a wave, or a contraction, (if you’ve ever been in labor). There is a buildup of energy, a peak and then a denouement. Most of us don’t stick around long enough to know that if you can tolerate the uncomfortable feelings while staying embodied and present, you will get a reprieve from them. On the other side is where your freedom lies. This is a visual description to have you understand this concept better.
- When you do finally eat – try eating mindfully. Use all your senses when eating and spend time savoring the flavors on your palate. Notice the textures and tastes, as you have never done before.
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6. Befriend the Binge. What? I hate my binge! What do you mean befriend it? That is ridiculous!
Stay with me. I will explain….
If all else fails, as it often will, DO NOT disparage yourself for using food to calm and soothe. Remember – it is deep seeded and long-term strategy you have used and will continue to rear its head from time to time. Try to forgive yourself and start anew. If strategies 1-5 does not work and you decide to binge or eat foods that:
a. you know may result in a weight gain
b. leads to shame, depression and anxiety
c. produces a GI disturbance
d. causes you to abandon healthy behaviors and self-care
Befriend the Binge! Make friends with it. Be curious about it. Learn its life story. What is the binge telling you? What does it reveal about what you truly need, for which food serves as a surrogate? These thoughts may unleash some very difficult memories or conversations you may have had with yourself, which are often at the root of emotional and binge-eating that are not sufficiently addressed. (In my next blog post, I’ll also discuss “Ritualizing the Binge,” which is a separate concept and technique which can also help diminish or stop binges.)
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