Sometimes your strongest cravings for food take hold when you’re feeling at your weakest emotionally. A stressful day at the office may steer you to the nearest fast-food eatery for a double cheeseburger; or a night spent arguing at home might end with a bowl of ice cream. Food does more than simply fill the stomach when used to feed mounting emotions in situations such as these. At that point, it can sabotage good diet intentions and lead to a never-ending cycle of bingeing and self-blame.
While few of us take pleasure in facing tumultuous feelings of depression, anger, sadness and resentment – stuffing these emotions inside can eat away at self-esteem, triggering anxiety and an irresistible urge to indulge. An unhealthy binge commonly leads to feelings of guilt and a cascade of self-blame that tends to repeat itself. When you take a harsh view of yourself as weak, overweight and unable to lose weight, those negative thoughts only perpetuate weight gain. In fact, when participants in one study engaged in self-criticism and self-blame, their brains showed that activity in brain regions correlated with depression, eating disorders and anxiety (NeuroImage 1/15/10).
“When we feel really bad, either from an uncomfortable emotion or when we add insult to injury through criticizing ourselves, we may try to avoid or ward off the feeling by eating. That’s emotional eating, and it’s a defense against feeling bad,” explains Christopher K. Germer, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion” (The Guilford Press). “We do it to bypass the pain and to feel better. It’s an excellent short-term solution, but the long-term consequences can be devastating.” The remedy to emotional overeating, suggests Germer, is mindfulness –being aware of your emotions and how they affect you – and self-compassion. These practices give you the strength to evaluate what’s really bothering you and to respond with self-kindness rather than criticism. “That gives us a little more mental space to make healthy choices,” says Germer.
“Self-compassion is a new habit that anyone can learn. Deep within all beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering.”
After gaining more than 40 pounds, Lauren Tobin learned how to practice self-compassion, which ultimately allowed her to drop the excess weight. “I think back emotionally to what was going on in my life at the time and there was a lot,” recalls Tobin, 40, mother of two young girls and controller for a packaging company in Oaks, Pennsylvania. “You don’t feel well, you eat and then you don’t feel well because you ate.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think eating a bag of pretzels and dip will change the outcome of how you feel about your life.”
Feeling lethargic and low on energy, Tobin divided her weight-loss strategy into manageable steps that included:
- Incorporating healthier foods into her diet
- Maintaining a food diary
- Evaluating the emotional triggers that spurred her to overeat
“I had to find a different way, when I was feeling down or depressed, to not automatically turn to food. One day I just made a decision,” notes Tobin. “I broke it up into small goals so it wasn’t such a daunting task.” A simple mental exercise to help you achieve your weight-loss goals is substituting “self-compassion breaks” in lieu of food breaks.
Germer suggests that you find a quiet place, put your hand on your heart, take three deep breaths and tell yourself you are in a moment of suffering (mindfulness), that suffering is a part of everyone’s life (common humanity) and that you want to be kind to yourself (self-kindness). This type of self-compassion, explains Germer, is a self-soothing alternative to food. “These practices can interrupt the automatic connection between stress and eating,” he says.
As the handsome star of the popular soap opera “One Life to Live,” Freeman Michaels based his success on how the world perceived him. After leaving acting behind in the mid-1990s, a thriving real estate development company provided Michaels with that same sense of security. “I thought if I was famous, I’d be happy. I thought if I was rich, I’d be happy,” says Michaels. But when his business failed during the real estate crash, his weight ballooned to nearly 280 pounds.
“I thought if I was famous, I’d be happy. I thought if I was rich, I’d be happy.”
A self-described “latchkey kid,” Michaels admits that he has turned to food for comfort during much of his life. “I ate my way through my troubles. All these attempts in my life to make it from the outside in were never sustainable,” he says. “At no point was I ever really okay, not with myself and not with my eating.”
A speaker, workshop trainer and author of “Weight Release: A Liberating Journey” (Morgan James), Michaels received a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and founded the Service to Self-Process, a life coaching program that helps clients examine food-related behaviors, explore “self-honoring” alternatives, and create healthy practices that ultimately become habits. “A lot of us are feeding something inside. It can be an expression of rebelling, of deflecting unwanted attention, of abuse,” says Michaels.
“What we do today is the process of applying compassion to the part of us that hurts. The minute we apply compassion, it lifts.” Instead of reacting from the painful past, Michaels suggests creating healthy rituals such as walking and meditating, generating intention between bites by focusing on healthy food choices, and writing down a list of wholesome foods – along with their health benefits – for extra motivation.
Learning to break free from mindless, emotionally driven eating – and the self-blame it creates – may feel a little awkward at first if you have always reached for cookies in times of crisis. But Tobin and Michaels say they are living proof that the results are well worth the effort. “When you do something repeatedly, over time it becomes easier to do,” says Michaels. “Compassion allows us to see clearly. It’s a healing journey.”
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