At this point, you might be feeling like you’re not coping with this pandemic as well as you anticipated. You might have expected some sort of adjustment period, but it’s likely going on much longer than you thought. During high stress situations, many people use food to cope. If you are emotional eating right now, you are not alone and you are not a failure! This is a high stress circumstance with no end-date in sight. It’s no wonder you’re feeling high levels of stress and emotions. Food is a natural coping mechanism, and while it’s normal to eat your feelings occasionally, you might be feeling really yucky and sick of it at this point. If you’re ready to reduce overeating due to stress and emotions, keep reading.
The critical first step to reducing emotional eating is releasing judgment. Shaming yourself for numbing yourself with food does not lead to positive change. Positive change begins with self-love and self-compassion.
Emotional eating is not a personal failure or flaw. It makes sense that it’s happening right now. We are biologically wired to feel good when we eat. It’s a survival mechanism and it’s noticeable right from birth. Babies cry and then they are soothed when they nurse or drink their bottle. Interestingly enough, the foods we tend to crave as ‘comfort foods’ have the same carbohydrate to fat ratio as breastmilk! It’s natural to be comforted by food. So don’t shame yourself for doing that during this time of exceedingly high stress.
Recognize that you are doing your best to cope with the situation at hand with the tools available to you. Many of us weren’t taught how to manage our emotions when we were children. Did your parents tell you to “suck it up” or “keep crying and I’ll give you a reason to cry” when you were upset? Did they ignore you or minimize your feelings? Were you allowed to express your feelings and opinions safely? Even well-intentioned and loving parents can miss the mark when it comes to giving kids the critical skills they need to process and release emotions. I encourage you to think about how your emotions were responded to as a child. This can feel like a touchy subject if you have a lot of love for your parents. Just know that making a mistake does not mean they weren’t good parents. It just means they did the best they could with the tools they had, and there might be some unfinished learning for you to do now as an adult.
Food is such an instant emotion-number that it often becomes a severely over-used coping skill. This is especially the case when we weren’t taught how to manage our emotions. Many of us were taught to shut them down and ignore them which leads to an undercurrent of anxiety and emotion that is constantly threatening to bubble over. When we don’t know how to manage the stress and emotions bubbling up, we numb them out. Food, alcohol, drugs, etc are all ways that people do that, with food being one of the most common.
If stress and emotion management was not effectively taught to you as you were growing up, or if your skill has decreased, don’t worry! You can absolutely retrain your brain to stop automatically turning to food for numbing whenever emotions and stress run high. Our brains are “neuroplastic” which means they are able to be rewired. This is done through repetition of a new skill.
The key to being able to actually process your emotions, and therefore release them, is to experience them fully. If you are not used to this, it can feel uncomfortable and take some practice to get used to. To do this, follow these steps:
It’s a good practice to do this emotional release process at least once a day. Even a few minutes is helpful. As you continue your practice, you’ll begin to notice that there is less of an emotional undercurrent during your day and there is less urge to use food to numb.
Be gentle on yourself
Practice self-compassion as you work on learning to manage stress and emotions without food. It isn’t an instant process. Rewiring your brain for self-regulation takes repetition. Keep at it and don’t let shame come into the picture. You will likely still use food to cope with emotions, especially in the beginning, and that’s okay. The goal isn’t to eradicate emotional eating, but to learn more coping skills so we can tend to our emotional health effectively.
Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.