When you feel the urge to eat—and you’re not hungry—most likely it’s because you’re emotionally overwhelmed, stressed-out and unable to contain your emotions. Maybe you feel angry after arguing with your partner, demoralized because you gained a pound, or hurt because your best friend forgot your birthday.
Whatever the trigger, if your habit is to turn impulsively to food when upset, somewhere along the way you learned that food soothes your hard feelings and numbs your pain. We all need to feel comfort when upset. Food may feel like a trusted friend, always there when you need it.
But as you also know… turning to food when upset can harm your body and result in guilt and shame which just perpetuate the emotional eating cycle. To break that habit, I invite you to consider that the most important thing you can do is to welcome those feelings and feed them not with food, but with your love.
Love Those Hard Feelings
When you push your feelings away—whether with food, alcohol or excessive shopping—your inner world becomes confused and unsettled because you’re essentially saying your feelings don’t matter. I know you’re not doing this intentionally, you just want to feel better.
But when you stop numbing your feelings with food and begin to nurture yourself with love and compassion, you’ll feel stronger and more secure.
Imagine a child crying and her parent ignoring her, offering no comfort at all. She feels invisible and learns her feelings don’t matter. Or perhaps the parent yells and says, “Stop crying!” The child feels ashamed and learns to deny her feelings. Or if the child hears, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” she feels threatened and learns that pretending to be happy keeps her safe.
Many people who struggle with emotional eating began turning to food as children or teenagers because food was an easy-to-access “drug” to numb feelings when their home environment couldn’t support them. You can probably relate to this.
But now, as an adult, you can learn to soothe yourself without food and learn to welcome and embrace your feelings in a loving way. Here’s a process to help you honor your feelings with love and compassion when the urge to eat strikes.
1. Create Space
When you feel triggered to eat, remember the 90-second rule: The hormones that cause you to feel stress in your body run their course within 90 seconds and then quiet down. Your initial physical reaction to stress—rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, muscle tension—relaxes after 90 seconds as long as you don’t feed it with a spiral of negative and stress-inducing thoughts. So do the best you can to ground yourself for at least 90 seconds so the stress response can leave your body.
For example, practice four-step breathing as soon as you feel triggered and you’ll immediately feel some relief.
1. Breathe in for four counts.
2. Hold the breath for four counts.
3. Breathe out for four counts.
4. Hold the breath for four counts.
Do this for a couple of minutes until your body relaxes and your mind calms down. The main thing is you want to create space between the urge to eat and acting on that urge so you can stop the habit of immediately reaching for food.
To learn more about how the 90-second rule helps with emotional eating, read my blog post, This (Food Urge), Too, Shall Pass.
2. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?
It’s so easy to move directly from experiencing an emotion to impulsively acting on it. So it’s important to reflect on what is going on inside of you. If you don’t stop to identify and put words to what you’re feeling, you’ll have a harder time responding in a healthy and self-nurturing way.
When you’re gripped with emotion and start munching on chips, you’re acting out your feelings and letting them control you. Acting out children are often taught to “tell me with words” what they’re communicating through their disruptive behavior. That’s effective because simply naming an emotion—“I feel sad,” “I feel angry” or “I feel disappointed”—helps you regain some composure and respond to the situation in a mindful, rather than mindless, way.
3. Ask your Higher Power for comfort.
You don’t have to do this alone. Help from the Heavens and your Wise Inner Self is always available.
After identifying what you’re feeling, nourish yourself with compassion. I love these phrases—prayers, really—taken from the tradition of loving-kindness meditation. Simply repeating them is like wrapping yourself in a soft blanket. Think of a mother tenderly rocking and holding her crying baby. With that kind of love, say these words to yourself:
May I feel at peace.
May I feel at ease.
May I feel safe.
May I feel loved.
Repeat as necessary until you feel calmer and the urge to eat lessens or goes away. The more you practice this, the more effective it becomes.
So the next time you feel the urge to eat, stop and breathe for a couple of minutes. Take a moment to reflect on what you’re really feeling. Name it. Then, offer yourself this prayer as a way of embracing yourself—and your feelings—with love.