The holidays with their promising cornucopia of delicious food are fast approaching. Perhaps some of us might be already worrying about over-indulging. How much we eat around the holidays, however, is not the problem. Most humans overeat on occasion when dining with friends and family. Further, most of us at some point in life feel somewhat concerned about the way we eat or about changes in our weight or appearance. It is when the concern leads to eating as a strategy of avoidance or when it becomes the number-one coping mechanism that we must pause and examine if we indeed have a grave problem or, in the least, where the hunger is really coming from. Emotional eating behaviors often are attempts to numb suffering.
Emotional eating is the ingestion of food to feel good and to avoid experiencing undesirable emotions. When lonely and depressed, some might reach for a cold and creamy ice cream. Others might seek bread or wine after a stressful day. Occasionally using food to alleviate an aching spirit or a tired body is not necessarily a problem. We all have a particular food that we crave and reach out to when comfort is needed. The problem begins when food becomes the main coping mechanism in moments of boredom, anger, exhaustion, frustration or any other emotion. This form of stress hunger is often confused or experienced as physical hunger and could lead to over-eating as a calming recourse.
The problem we face is that there is absolutely no food that can satisfy emotional hunger. Consuming our favorite food may feel momentarily good, but the emotion that triggers the impulse remains unaffected by the ingested food. The compulsion to feed emotions can lead to the consumption of more food, then feeling anxious about eating, then eating more because of the anxiety, generating overeating and consequential guilt and thus a sense of being out of control.
A mindful awareness of our behaviors around eating, both observable and non-observable, could lead to psychological flexibility or the ability to accept things for what they are while making a commitment to taking actions that are aligned with what is most important or valuable to us. A healthy alternative to emotional hunger is to use its power and presence as a bell calling us to mindfulness, an awareness, an invitation to re-engage in activities that are more aligned with what is important to us. A mindful awareness can lead to making positive changes centered around a commitment to healthy living.
An ongoing mindful eating practice gives us clues to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger. Such attention and discernment could prevent emotional eating from taking over our life. For instance, a sudden attack of hunger for specific foods is most likely to be emotional hunger since physical hunger tends to show gradually and not as a sudden attack. Another sign is that emotional hunger is experienced as a bottomless barrel; we tend to keep eating even after being full. With physical hunger, on the other hand, we know when we reach a point of satiation.
Perhaps the most salient indicator of emotional hunger is its location, the head, as it is most likely made of thoughts and not the usual pang in the stomach we experience with physical hunger. Emotional hunger sets in the mind and obsesses on textures, tastes and very specific scents. Mindful Eating, as conceived by Dr. J. Chozen Bays leads to conscious living. Mindfulness enables us to be aware of situations, places, or feelings which lead to mindless eating. If we turn our emotional eating into a bell of mindfulness that calls us to the present moment and to the choices we are making, we are practicing both mindful eating, and self-compassion.
The following are four important clues for a healthier relationship with eating:
- Free your emotions: Food ingestion could easily be a way to “stuff down” undesirable emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, loneliness, guilt and resentment. However, using food to numb emotions deprives us from getting in touch with the cause of the emotion and from accepting and adjusting to what is bothering us. Recognition, commitment, and action-taking are ways to free an emotion so we don’t eat it.
- Find Purpose: When you seek out your comfort food, ask yourself, is it physical hunger, boredom or emptiness? Be conscious of your use of food to fill up an unfulfilled desire or a sense of emptiness. Don’t turn food into a way to fill up either time or your mouth. Once you discover the emotion, use the awareness to find a purposeful long-lasting solution to the need.
- Understand the history behind the hunger: Look back to your childhood. What foods were used to reward/punish you? Ice cream for good grades? Sweets to soothe your aches and pains? Have you continued to play out the same rituals? If that is the case, what are you willing to do to turn the rituals into workable value-driven ones?
- Let social gatherings guide you: Gathering around the table with loved ones is a stress reliever. It can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge while the attention is centered around conversations and people. It is also easier to eat just because the food is available. Ask yourself, am I uncomfortable or anxious right now? Am I eating out of discomfort? Be mindful of your actions and always check with your value system in order to make decisions that are aligned with it.
Submitted by Marianela Medrano, PhD, LPC, owner and principle trainer at: Palabra Counseling & Training Center, LLC, a holistic psychotherapeutic and training center, with offices in Stamford and New Haven.