Do you eat when you’re upset, depressed, or to calm yourself down? When you’re celebrating or need a lift? When you’re angry, bored, anxious, sad, or lonely? If so, you turn to eating when trapped by a difficult situation or feeling. You use eating.
Emotional landmine eating
If you use eating as a way of comforting, calming or coping, you probably learned this pattern at an early age. When you were little and had an “owie,” your parents may have given you a hug, a kiss, and a cookie. Once you focused on the treat, you felt better. So what do you do when you’re older, especially if the hug and kiss aren’t available? – You look for a cookie. When you feel powerless in a situation or a relationship, food becomes something you can control and give to yourself. When you feel hurt, lonely or bored, food becomes something you can take to bed.
When you use food to comfort or nurture yourself or as a buffer from pain, then any emotion can trigger eating. Food is a terrific and a terrible comforter and calmer – it anesthetizes pain, distracts you from hurt, and shoots calming endorphins into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, when you use food in excess you wear your comfort on your body.
If you now wear more stored food on your body than you want, you need a strategy for breaking the link between emotions and eating. Here’s what I teach in the training session I developed called The Milky Way Diet: emotional and attitudinal strategies for weight loss.
The pause and reflection strategy
When you find yourself tempted to eat, pause. Then, ask yourself:
Am I hungry for food or is there an emotion or situation troubling me?
If you answer “an emotion or situation”, ask yourself:
“What emotion do I feel? What’s the feeling this situation gives me?”
If you find it hard to name the emotion, give yourself time. Let yourself consider two or three feelings – you may find the real feeling hidden under several others. When you name the emotion and begin to feel it purely and cleanly and without food, you’ve begun to conquer the emotion/food trigger. However long it takes, and especially if you find it painful to name the emotion, congratulate yourself on your honesty.
The diversion strategy
Once you name an emotion, you can start to tackle it. Ask yourself:
In what non-calorie way can I comfort or calm myself?
How can I cope with this emotion in a way that doesn’t add weight or later regrets?
What other methods can I use to express or discharge this emotion?
The take another action strategy
Once you commit to managing your emotion without covering it with food, you free yourself to try activities that give you pleasure, insight, and peace. Consider these four examples:
Can you call a close friend and talk? That would get the issues out on the table and possibly give you either comfort or perspective without calories.
Can you write about the situation or your feelings in a journal? When you write, you get the emotions out from inside and into the light of day where you can gain clarity or perspective about the situation.
Can you allow yourself to really feel the emotion and let it “work it out?” When you allow yourself to feel an emotion, instead of anesthetizing yourself with food or drink, you often “get past” the emotion.
Can you nurture yourself with a hot bubble bath, a good book, a warm fire, or a long walk? If you choose a method that gives you pleasure, without calories, you win an altered mood and a sense of pride in having conquered your food impulse.
Have emotions driven you to eat? Avoid the landmine by using the emotion to propel you to action, rather than food.
And finally, over-eating, binging, and anorexia can be difficult to fully conquer and can be addictions. You may need a team of medical professionals, counselors, and supportive individuals in a recovery group to take you further on the path to the healthy body you want.
© 2016, Lynne Curry, professional coach and author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully. Follow her @lynnecurry10 or onworkplaceocoachblog.com.