Is emotional eating really our emotions?
As a Nourishment Coach who has worked with emotional eating since 2004, I have found that emotional eating really needs to be un-shamed. Consistently I have heard from clients over the years, how ashamed they are of their food behaviors and yet every time I meet people at social gatherings and dinner parties, someone comes up to me and wants to confide their food secrets to me. They want to share not only what they eat, but also how they struggle with emotional eating. The thing is, everyone does it, because emotional eating is a behavior similar to our other stress-responses. It is time we stop shaming people for emotional eating and demystify what it really is. Especially now that the Holidays are upon us, many get triggered by family dynamics, foods on the table that we associate with celebration, but also forbidden, and just simply end of the year, which can be stressful too. Stress-season is coming folks, so let’s not get “judgy” with ourselves about how we cope with it.
What do we consider emotional eating?
Emotions come and go. They last for only a brief moment and then they change. If we try to narrow them down we tend to get lost in the story about the emotions instead of the actual emotions. That is why emotional eating is not the emotions! It is our relationship with our emotions and with that our habits of how we cope and deal with them!
Let me explain.
What makes our emotional coping skills so difficult to change is that they go way back. The very first experience we had when we were born was to be soothed with food (mother’s milk) while being embraced. Now, you cannot beat that! Then we were weaned from the breast and taught to self-soothe with the bottle, the pacifier, the teddy bear, and the blankie. Now self-soothing is essential and studies have found that some cultures self-soothe better than others. Our problem is that self-soothing has become food and other substances rather than learning other habits that helps us “be” with our emotions to self-soothe and instead we want to get rid of our emotions because we judge them as bad and unwanted, or we react to them in a behavioral way, which is more the issue of what is bad and unwanted. But along the way we have put emotions and automatic behaviors (reactions) into the same category and with that we judge emotions as bad. They are not!
Understanding the emotions and habit connection.
It is basic human nature to want to avoid pain and to find pleasure. Since we are naturally uneasy with the discomfort, we still look for ways to self-soothe. In my more than 10 years of working with people struggling with cravings and emotional eating, I consistently find that emotional eating is the habit of how we deal with our emotions, not the emotions themselves that is the problem. Once we learn to see, feel, and accept the emotions for what they are, they are not longer the problem.
Emotions are short, brief reactions to something that happens in your environment. We are not our emotions. Emotions come and go and they change quite fast. It is the thoughts and stories we are telling ourselves about the emotions, our negative self-talk, that get us stuck in feeling overwhelmed, not the emotions themselves.
Mood is different, it can be something we wake up with and seemingly come from out of nowhere. A mood lasts longer than emotions and is a felt-sense in your being (like irritability) which then flares up (like anger) when we are triggered. We can also talk ourselves into a horrible mood, based on how we react to the emotions that are triggered and we for example start telling ourselves how wrong we are to have these emotions, rather than recognizing that it is the reaction to the emotion that causes the problem.
Getting to know our emotional habits.
Our core basic emotions are normal reactions to something that happens in our environment.
We are wired to look for what is negative (danger) so we judge our emotions as an unwelcome change to the status quo and we want to fix them. Stress is a response to what we think we cannot handle or control and it renders us feeling powerless and out of control. Think of a wild caged animal. That is how not being able to “fix” our emotions can feel like. Therefore, it is a natural human reaction to respond when we are triggered and that is where we can make a change.
“We change, not by avoiding how we feel, but by getting to know more intimately how our emotional triggers affect us.”
Here are ways to help recognize your emotional habits:
- Log your habits so you can start seeing your coping patterns. This first step helps you become aware of what you are actually doing and mindful about the automatic behaviors.
- Note your stress-triggers. It can be as simple as a busy day with no self-time or an argument with a co-worker or boss. These are events that trigger you into feeling stressed (not busy stressed, but emotionally stressed). Boredom is also an emotional stressor because we are feeling unproductive and without motivation.
- See if you can notice your emotions instead of your thoughts. The basic core emotions are sad, mad, and scared with many nuances of those emotions grouped in there, which can manifest as feeling humiliated, small, ignored, incapable, no-good-enough and so on.
- Get used to noticing the emotions without attempting to change or fix them. The simplest way of noting them is to say, “I feel… right now.” Avoid saying “I am…” because that makes it feel much more permanent and emotions are not.
- Then take a clear look (non-judgmental and conscious) on what you can do that would make you feel better about the whole thing. The answers are often very simple, such as; “I just need to say it out loud” or “I really just need to get out of here for a moment”.
To change our habitual response takes emotional awareness, mindfulness, self-compassion, and yes…courage. In Buddhism we call it “to pause” so we can make a new conscious choice instead of falling into the habitual response pattern. We all have emotions; it is how we train ourselves to act upon them that makes a difference in our self-nourishment.