Face Your Feelings Without FoodFebruary 26, 2016
Have you noticed that, as a society, we hate to be uncomfortable? Both physically and emotionally, we do our best to make life as easy as possible. And to some degree that makes sense. Given the high-paced, stressful lives that most of us tend to lead, why struggle if you don’t have to?
Making Life Easier Can Have Negative Consequences
But as we all know, making life easier can have negative consequences, especially to our health. Our sedentary lifestyles are wreaking havoc on our bodies, leading people to now say that “sitting is the new smoking.” Convenience “foods” (I use that word loosely) that are quick and easy are loaded with chemicals that our bodies don’t recognize and can’t process, leading to significant health problems and obesity. Even our treatments for these issues tend to involve medication that, while helpful and even life-saving, often treats the symptoms and not the root cause of the condition. So we may feel comfortable, but we are still ill.
We tend to treat our emotions in a similar way. We really don’t like to experience uncomfortable feelings. And again, this makes sense. Emotions can be painful to ourselves and others. They can make us face things that we don’t want to face. And understanding them may take time and energy that we really don’t feel that we have. So, we often find ways to avoid them. We may minimize them and tell ourselves that our feelings are no big deal. We may flat out deny them and pretend they don’t exist.
Distraction is also a very common method of avoiding our feelings, and we have plenty of things to help us do that. Between computers, the Internet, Netflix, tablets, and smartphones, we have plenty of stimulation at our fingertips 24/7, so we don’t have to feel anything. Finally, we may turn to substances (food, alcohol, drugs) or behaviors (shopping, gambling, sex) to give us a high and to numb us out and forget about our feelings altogether.
If you’ve struggled with your weight, chances are you are someone who has used food to manage and/or avoid emotions. Food—just like drugs and alcohol—can be very numbing, so it’s a great way not to have to feel negative emotions. Eating can also be a pleasurable experience (at least while you’re doing it) and can make you feel happy and relaxed. It can be a great distractor as well. Who can feel upset while making homemade chocolate chip cookies?
The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t work. Just like a medical condition does not disappear because of the medication you are taking, feelings don’t just disappear because you avoid them. Feelings are, after all, physical sensations that tell us what’s going on in our inner world. And ignoring them or distracting ourselves from them won’t make them just go away.
Feelings That We Haven’t Dealt With Linger
You’ve probably had the experience where something happens in your present life that makes you think of something that happened years ago. And, you may be surprised when all of the old feelings resurface. Unfortunately, feelings that we haven’t dealt with will linger. They may become buried, but they’re still there. And if we keep avoiding them by eating, we just continue gaining weight because we don’t address the root cause.
So what can we do about all of this? First, let me just say that your feelings make up who you are, and they are never wrong. So understanding your emotions is truly just knowing yourself on a deeper level. And I for one think you are worth getting to know! As difficult as feelings can be, our emotional experiences make us feel more alive and more connected with other people. And we need the whole range of emotions to experience the most out of life. So please make the commitment to get curious about yourself and to know your emotions better.
Ok, so how do you do that? I wish I could give you a list of five quick and easy steps to make that happen in a matter of minutes. But, that would be simplifying a complicated process and would be leading you astray. But the more you do it, the easier it gets, so let’s get started!
Since we’re focusing on emotional eating, let’s look at the process as it begins with a craving (for a visual to remember of this process, see the flow chart below). When you notice yourself going for food, check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you are even hungry. If you are, then really consider what you would like to eat. If you decide that you want something healthy, then you are probably truly hungry and by all means eat. If you think you are hungry but are craving something salty or sweet, or if you know you are not hungry but still want to eat, then most likely your emotions are running the show.
It is Time for Some Detective Work
If you can, find a quiet place to be alone with yourself so that you can start to understand what is going on. Ask yourself how you are feeling and why you may be feeling this way. Did something happen recently that provoked this feeling? Have you felt this way in the past? You may find that the same patterns and themes emerge when you ask yourself questions. Just be curious about what you are experiencing. Simply being curious about your feelings—and not just diving right into them—helps to put some space between you and your emotions, which can help you to be less overwhelmed by them. If you find yourself becoming more emotional, check in with yourself to determine if the amount of emotion you are feeling is manageable. If it is, continue getting to know it. If it is becoming overwhelming, then it may be time to stop looking into it for today. There will always be another opportunity.
It is often helpful to take things a step further and express your feelings outward. Just sitting with them is sometimes not enough. One way to do this is through journaling about them. Just sitting and writing about what you feel can make your emotions more real and often less frightening. Talking to someone about your feelings can help immensely also. If you have people in your life who are supportive, trustworthy, and willing to listen, start talking to them. If you do not have such people in your life, or if your feelings are too overwhelming to manage, then find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. Not every therapist will be a good fit for you so if you feel like the connection isn’t there, find someone else.
Understand Your Emotions So You Can Curb Your Feelings Without Food
When you start to understand your emotions in these ways, you can then act on them differently and more effectively. I’ve had clients realize that they eat for any number of reasons. It may be that they are angry and do not know how to manage this so eat to suppress it. Upon realizing this, they can then deal with their anger and no longer need to eat in response to it. Some people eat because they are lonely. Once they recognize this, they can start to expand their social network, and the need to eat disappears. So essentially, once you understand the emotions under the eating, you can deal with those directly thereby lessening your reliance on food.
Getting to know your emotions can be an extremely rewarding and freeing process. Once you understand more about the feelings that drive you to eat, you can catch them before they take over and can then make a different choice. You may also find that the emotions you’ve been carrying for years dissipate and no longer trigger you to eat. I believe that getting to know yourself in this way is often the piece of the weight loss journey that people do not take, and sadly they do not get the results they were hoping for. If you do not understand why you eat, your efforts to eat healthier will be much more difficult and much less successful. So do yourself a favor and get started!
ABOUT THE AUTHORDr. Kimberly M. Daniels is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been working with clients for over 14 years. Dr. Daniels earned her Doctor of Psychology degree from the University of Hartford Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology. She completed Counseling and Assessment Services and postdoctoral fellowship at the Middlesex Hospital Center for Behavioral Health, Outpatient in Middletown, CT.
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