How’s your new year diet going? I’m guessing you’re a few weeks in, you have your target, you know what you’re going to eat, what exercise to do and you’ve decided that this time you’re going for it, no falling off the wagon, just full commitment. And has that little voice started yet, the one that whispers to you when you’re watching TV or when you’re tired, the one that starts, ‘But what about…?’. What about when you’ve had a crappy day and you want something good to eat? What about when you’re hungover and everyone else is eating MacDonald’s. What about when you get depressed or bored or upset or lonely etc, etc. And you know that will power is useless against emotion, against that need to eat to feel better because that need is about survival, your emotional survival, and in that moment that is all that matters.
Life kicks us all from time to time, and if you are an emotional eater, then chances are you’ve already had more than your fair share of kicks. Emotional eating is pain relief, relief from life, and we should never feel bad about needing that. So, if it’s inevitable, if you know that your emotions will start demanding food again sometime in the future, how can you make this time different?
There are 3 steps I recommend for dealing with that urge, all easy, all quick and all shift how you feel straight away.
Step 1. Recognise the anxiety and recognise the thought. Emotion doesn’t happen by itself, it comes from a thought you are having, so by identifying what the emotion is that you are feeling and what the thought is that is making you feel that way, you know what it is you need to change.
Step 2. Identify the cure you are seeking. Food gives different things to different people so to understand what you need to do to feel better, you need to know what you are seeking. It will be one of 3 things:
1. Pain relief. You are experiencing emotional pain caused by the activation of a memory. Your attention to that memory causes the same pain again.
2. Distraction. You are having a repeated thought about the future or present which is causing anxiety. These thoughts are usually questions which begin with, ‘What if…’, ‘How can I…’, ‘Why am I…’, etc.
3. Pleasure. You are feeling the urge to give yourself a treat as reward or eat something you have decided you ‘deserve’. This type of urge is not really about pleasure or deserving, it is really just pre-empting the anxiety or pain thought that has not yet happened.
Step 3. Act.
1. For pain relief, create strength. This many sound an odd thing to do but for pain relief, try keeping a heavy weight in the corner of your room. It can be a dumbbell or kettle ball, just something that challenges your strength a little. When you feel the painful thoughts start, as you keep repeating and remembering that pain, go to the weight and lift it over and over until you begin to feel the sensation of physical strength. Physical strength counteracts emotional pain because it creates thoughts and feelings of both physical and mental strength. The painful thoughts reduce as you feel stronger in that moment.
2. For distraction, talk to yourself. Talk to a mirror, a picture, the sky, a pet or just to the air around you. You need to have an argument and you need to speak it aloud. Not to another person, that is often unhelpful in the moment you are feeling the anxiety. You have anxious questions so ask them, argue with yourself, argue between you and the anxiety and let it lead you back to a peaceful place. You might not get an answer, but you will get relief.
3. For pleasure, go slow. The need to reward ourselves or give ourselves pleasure from food comes from an urgency to head off the thoughts you fear are coming. By slowing everything down; speech, movement, thinking, breathing, eating, the urgency reduces and thought clears. The thoughts of the future get further away and so are unable to create the same anxiety.
When it comes to emotion there is no such thing as failure. With every urge you get you learn more about yourself and your mind, but only if you listen to it. You can’t change anything if you refuse to look at it and that is all emotional eating is, a way of quickly getting rid of a thought without looking at it. Emotional eating is your coping mechanism so use it as your safety net. Food will rescue you if you need it but try and understand your mind first before running away from it.