Mindless stress or emotional eating.
You’ve been there – eating when you don’t want to, but the stress needs to go somewhere, and that is when stress or emotional eating starts.
It’s a distraction that helps to calm your stress with relief, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
You’re only trying to get away from the negativity. Eating something, especially if it’s a high-carbohydrate snack, works!
Your brain is bathed in calming, feel-good neurotransmitters that change your brain chemistry. Your brain is taking care of the immediate situation, “I need to calm the tension now.”
This is the heart of mindless stress eating.
You start feeling better when you have a pleasurable experience.
But shame and guilt hit you like a ton of bricks, and now you’re right back to feeling uncomfortable, and the soothing you experienced starts to evaporate.
What happens next? A lot of clients say it’s something like this:
You already ate the food, so you –
- restrict your food intake
- promise that next time you will resist
- focus on more willpower
- you go back down the path of mindlessness, stress, or emotional eating
- justify your discomfort by telling yourself you might as well enjoy it while you can
- feel hopeless that you’ll ever be in control of food
There are a lot of reasons why the stress or emotional eating cycle repeats over and over.
The reason for the most significant impact is that you feel near immediate relief.
There are many brain-chemical reasons why people feel a sense of control and relief after eating. Stress or emotional eating relieves uncomfortable feelings regardless of how long the relief lasts.
The desire to create and maintain a calm state is a powerful drive. When emotional reactivity is high, stress or emotional eating is one of the quickest legal ways to get calm.
Over the past few decades, the intersection of psychology and neuroscience has shown us that our emotions, how we feel, think, manage, and understand our experiences, are primarily based on learning how to cope and manage different states of being.
What’s important about this is that we can learn new skills eventually.
The bottom line is that you can learn how to become a conscious eater after years, decades, or even – of stress, emotional eating, or dieting.
Mind, body and heart peace.
When emotions are vague, people generalize them and think in broad brush strokes: “I feel bad or depressed, sad or mad, etc.”
This is a good start and you can develop a more refined, specific emotional vocabulary to help you even more.
It’s in our nature to seek to feel as good as possible, so when uncomfortable feelings surface, you probably want to eliminate them as quickly as possible.
Spending time pondering the subtleties of sadness isn’t something most people tend to do without some highly motivating factor to do it.
Emotional self-awareness requires you to be specific.
Becoming a Conscious Eater helps you increase your emotional vocabulary to become more aware of your feelings. When this happens, you have more options for calming and soothing yourself without needing food to do the job for you.
While I can’t promise that this is an easy task, I can tell you that just like learning anything new, you’ll become more skillful with intentional practice.
Vague feelings lead to no specific action plan and lead to stress or emotional eating.
So, why all this talk about the specifics of feelings? Getting specific about the feeling provides you with a broader range of options so you can feel better sooner.
Here’s an example:
Say you’re at work and there’s a project you’re leading, the deadline is near and it’s not going well. You’ve racked your brain to devise solutions, but it’s not happening. So, you decide to summon up courage and talk with your boss about it. You want to receive some guidance on how to move forward.
Bad news: your boss is tense and busy with an emergency. Furthermore, she tells you that she expects you to handle it independently and is confident you’ll figure out what you need to do if you spend more time on it. She wraps up by telling you she has a conference call in 2 minutes and, with a tone, sends the message, Don’t come back with this problem – give me your best work in the morning.’
Has this ever happened to you?
I imagine we all have experienced some version of this at least once in life!
Notice the feelings you might have felt as you read the example.
Frustration at the inability to get the project done without a fresh perspective.
Which can lead to anxiety about not knowing and needing to ask for help.
This can lead to feeling vulnerable that your boss will judge your work performance as poor and that you’re not a valuable employee.
Your boss’s response can lead to anger.
You asked for help; she’s your boss, it’s part of her job and she’s not doing it!
The anger, if left unexplored, can get stuck. You could focus on your boss’s incompetence or dislike of you, plan to set yourself up for failure, etc.
The mind can go to dark places when we get stuck in fear!
Even if all this negativity is true—there are difficult bosses out there—you can remain curious about the variety of feelings you experience and then decide if the feelings become problematic.
The emotionally curious part of you, the part who desires to be more conscious and intentional in life, may have a conversation with yourself like this:
I made myself vulnerable and asked for help when I needed it. Now I feel dismissed that my work isn’t necessary, maybe even taken to an old familiar feeling – I am unimportant.
I’m disappointed because I really like my boss and look up to her as a role model and now, my heart is broken a little.
Maybe she’s not the superwoman I wanted her to be.
I feel even less able to do my best work and maybe I’m not as invested and excited as I once was. Perhaps I’ll go to lunch early and have my favorite food to console myself.
But wait, no, maybe the problem she’s dealing with is more urgent now than the project due tomorrow. After all, it is an emergency! I know that she doesn’t have time until the problem is solved.
She put her faith in me and tried to be encouraging but didn’t have the time or capacity.
Considering all the feelings I’ve just processed, maybe I can give her what I have, make notes on what needs to be refined, and talk after the problem is resolved and she catches her breath.
Maybe I can take a deep breath, walk outside, and get fresh air. It’s a nice day and that will help.
I need to practice patience. Have a nourishing lunch, then get a game plan together so that I’m as prepared as possible at this point in my work.
When you get more specific about your feelings, you have more options.
With time and practice, you can get to the heart of the matter more quickly.
There is a simplicity in directly addressing the nuance of feeling, which helps guide you in caring for the feeling.
What if part of the problem with emotional eating isn’t the food but not being transparent about the feeling or what to do with it?
What if you separate the food from the feeling in a way that gives you more information about the feelings and possibilities for taking care of yourself without focusing on food?
The assumption we’re working with is – you need to fuel your body and fullness-satiety is a need. Nobody can work very well with their feelings if your body needs fuel. Get something to eat and check in with yourself. Nourish your body at the beginning of signs of hunger.
The two systems – feeling and nourishment – are interrelated; we can’t truly separate them, but we can separate them enough to find clarity. They require different questions and, most often, different answers.
Let food be food and emotions be emotions.
How to identify the nuance of feelings and prevent stress or emotional eating.
Feelings identification process.
There are three basic emotions that most people start from anxiety, anger, and sadness.
Suppose you think about the intensity of the emotion, like a little anticipatory anxiety, when you’re in week two of a new job. Just a little, enough to keep you on your toes versus intense anxiety when you’re about to give a pitch to a venture capital team for several million dollars. The intensity of emotion about an unknown situation, like your first day on the job, can be consuming.
If you lump these experiences into one, as if they are the same, you short-change your relationship with yourself.
Lots of people do this every day.
In the attempt to get past difficult emotions, you may dismiss them as if they are nothing, and in return, you miss the possibility of caring for yourself in a significant way.
How to apply “feelings identification” to decrease stress or emotional eating.
Depending on your experience with a particular emotion and the intensity you experience of it, you’ll need options. A variety of coping skills to work through the emotional experience helps a lot. You can get to the other side of your emotions faster and that’s what builds emotional awareness.
Think of this like any new skill you learn. Riding a bike at first is shaky and usually involves losing your balance, falling off, and trying again. With each round of trial and error, you learn more. Your mind and body become experienced in bike riding and you know more about how to stay balanced.
They are necessary steps that help you learn what not to do so you learn what works – faster.
If you try a coping skill that doesn’t fit the emotion, meaning it doesn’t help decrease the intensity, it’s okay. Try the next idea – it may be the one that helps! I have a process for you to try to make it easier and hopefully faster.
The SILK process can be very helpful in getting you the clarity you need.
SILK – Stop
Be still and give yourself a few minutes to feel.
No worries if it’s complicated. This is time-limited, and it will pass in a few minutes.
You need to allow yourself a couple of minutes to find what you’re working with.
List your feelings and consider the possibilities. Look up some of the synonyms and add them to your list.
You may find that the dictionary definition or browse the thesaurus clarifies how you feel.
Think of it as an exploration to understand what you are responding to. And that’s a clue to what you need for your well-being.
SILK – Listen
When you look at the feeling list, you know where and which feeling resonates in your heart.
Notice what hits you with, “Yeah, that’s it.” The next step is to ask yourself, “What can I do to help me to feel taken care of?”
What will help you to move through the tricky part and get to the other side where growth resides?
SILK – Kindness
Work from a growth mindset perspective.
This is the place where the Golden Rule of Self-care applies to you.
Treat yourself well. It may take time to figure out what you need.
You will make mistakes along the way and that’s okay; you are learning.
You are getting to know yourself in a different way that leads to good things.
Getting unstuck is the best reward.
I hope that you find that developing your emotional vocabulary leads you down the path to Conscious Eating!
When you solve stress or emotional eating, burnout, feeling overwhelmed and feeling stressed also decrease dramatically. You can use your newly developed self-awareness to take care of your needs. You’ll have the time and energy to pursue what you need and live a fulfilling life you love. And after all – is that what it’s all about?