Intuitive Eating – Cope with your Feelings with kindness

sea with sun calm emotions
cope with your feelings without food intuitive eating

So, back to it, 2023 and a new start! Except I feel like it is more of a reminder for me on my journey with Intuitive Eating which I embarked on many months ago.  I have to admit, whilst I was aware of being more intuitive over the festive period, there was certainly times where I was not listening to my body (and that is ok!). I am aware that I was just going along with what the Christmas traditions and not wanting to ´miss out´ on some things so I have been reflecting a bit on that and bringing that gentle awareness with me.  I think there were times where I was feeling quite out of touch with my body and my fullness, but this week, partly with the help of reading my trusty Intuitive Eating book again and partly through more space and movement, I am starting to get back on track.   To be honest, I could have done with learning and integrating Principle 7, ´Cope with your feelings without using food´, before Christmas. Before the general sense of overwhelm, being surrounded by all our family and all that can bring up, but now I know about it for next time!

Powerful words worth repeating:

Food won´t fix any of our feelings.

It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you.

But food won’t solve the problem.

You will ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion.

Intuitive Eating – Tribole and Resch

For many of us food may be the only tool we have to deal with difficult times in our life (or any type of addiction/compulsive behaviour).  This is not our fault and often a result of our conditioning and culture; The baby is crying – give it some milk, celebrate a birthday – have some cake, receive some great news or bad news – go for a meal or eat icecream/chocolate/have a drink.   There are so many associations and emotions linked with food.

Food is bundled together to create love, comfort, community, tradition, reward, friendship – it connects with us on so many levels and in ways that we are often not even aware of.

Adding a history of dieting on top can also add layers of guilt, judgement and shame which in turn can trigger a desire for more food too!  It is certainly complex which is why it is so important that we take it slow and gently, to start observing our thoughts.  Awareness is critical.  It all starts there.

So, to start to unravel some of these connections and conditioning, we yet again need to bring a lot of self-compassion and gentle awareness of ourselves. 

I would also recommend for people that are dealing with trauma (most of us!) or recognise any type of compulsive eating behaviour that they work with a psychologist or therapist to help support through this process.

To add in my personal experience, several years ago I realised that I was not in a good mental place and was using food and alcohol to cope and numb. However, I was not aware of my thoughts and certainly not what my triggers were.   I needed some therapy and now many years later and a regular practice of self-reflection, journalling and a myriad of tools that work for me I can see my thoughts and also how they connect to my feelings. 

The next part is to just observe these thoughts or emotions with mindful awareness – complete neutrality so there is no judgement there.  This again, sounds simple, but not easy.  This is partly why I find journalling so helpful as it gives me some space between my thoughts and I can then witness them almost as if I am in the third person. You can just start by writing what is going on for you or asking yourself a question about how you feel right now?

From my teen years onwards I was disconnected from my thoughts and my body and used food to comfort and numb myself which is often termed ´disconnected eating´.  We can do this to escape emotions or daily life, out of habit, if we are bored or eat when we feel like we are expected too. Any time that we are not really connected with our body and our hunger is disconnected eating. 

This disconnected eating can lead to overeating which then can trigger another layer of feelings, particularly of guilt or shame.  To start to tackle this Intuitive Eating invites us to give ourselves some space to observe and a healthy dose of self-compassion.  If we do feel guilty for eating or drinking something – are we really guilty? Guilt implies we have done something seriously wrong, broken a moral code or law.  Is that truly the case?  By starting to observe and then break this pattern – giving ourselves this non-judgmental awareness we start to create space to explore our emotions and feelings with curiosity and kindness.

The authors of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch talk about a continuum of emotional eating which is a result of emotional hunger, rather than biological hunger.

Continuum of emotional eating

Sensory Gratification

This is the important feeling of receiving pleasure from food which is also discussed in Principle 5: ´Discover the Satisfaction Factor´.  It is essential that we gain pleasure from our food and eating as part of normal daily life!

Comfort

There are some foods that may immediately spring to mind when thinking of comfort (macaroni cheese anyone?) and that is ok and we can enjoy this.  However, to enjoy a healthy relationship with food we need to be aware of whether food is the first and only thing that comes to mind when we seek comfort. Plus whether we connect with our body and the eating experience and our fullness whilst eating it.   If we use food as the only way to deal with our sadness, loneliness or whatever, then we are actually masking the problem rather than dealing with the issues that are there.

Distraction

This is the next in line on the continuum of emotional eating as we may use food to distract from our feelings or thoughts. Again, this can block our ability to tune into what is going on for us and also our body´s intuitive signals. Occasional distracted eating is not a major issue, but needs to be explored further if you are using food regularly in this way.

Sedation

This is likened to a ´food coma´ when food is used to numb us from difficult feelings or days.  Again if it is a regular occurrence it can be very difficult to tune into our bodies signals and even harder to overcome the root of the problem.

Punishment

This is an extension of sedation, where a pattern may ensue that food is used to punish rather than for pleasure.  It is an eating behaviour that requires further support, but is certainly not insurmountable with the encouragment of the voice of the nurturer (as talked about in Principle Four: Challenge the Food Police).

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating

There can be a number of emotional triggers that can lead us to use food as a coping mechanism.

One way to explore whether we are using food in this way is to ask ourselves before and during eating how we are feeling?

If we continue to eat when we are full, then we can ask ourselves:

Is there an emotional need we are also trying to fill?

These are some of the most common feelings that food may be used to cope with:

Boredom –  e.g.  to fill time, something to do in a spare 5 minutes.

Procrastination – avoidance of doing something, make a task tolerable.

Bribery and reward – often happens as we are kids and we can continue as adults.  I know I often will say to myself there is a food reward after I have done a dreaded task instead of just allowing myself to have what I want whenever I like.

Excitement – going somewhere or trying something new or out for a meal can trigger this, just as a diet can also trigger excitement and a sense of hope (which can then sadly be followed by despair) .

Soothing – we may experience a need for something warm when we are cold or sweet when we have had a difficult or bitter exchange. Food can be a very appealing source of soothing.

Love – food is often used to show or feel love whether cooking for someone or taking them out for a meal, plus some foods also trigger chemicals similar to those when we feel love or are falling in love!

Frustration, rage and anger – some people use food to get through their anger which may even be a crunchy type of food to help reduce these feelings.

Stress – whilst stress actually reduces our biological desire to eat for most people, it can be a reason why people eat more, especially if they are dieters.  Stress can give us a good excuse to ditch the diet.

Anxiety, mild depression – both can trigger more food to beaten or a desire to fill a hole in ourselves with food.

Being connected/sociable – choosing to eat whilst with people even if we aren’t hungry or particularly enjoying the food.

Letting off steam or loosening the reins – if much of our lives is controlled or we are successful we can sometimes ´allow ourselves´ more freedom in another area which may be our eating – something else may have to give!

journalling our feelings and emotions with a cup of coffee

How to cope with emotional eating?

Here are some key questions we can ask ourselves if we feel that we are regularly on the emotional eating continuum:

  1. Am I biologically hungry?

If yes, eat!

If not hungry, explore the following:

2. What am I feeling?

Take some time out to explore this and maybe experiment with writing it out, talking to someone or to your phone or to a therapist.

3. What do I need?

We may reach for food, but what we really need is a hug, some rest, to talk to someone instead, only we know what we are feeling and what we may need.

To do this part we may need some help or support to meet our needs, which may not be easy for us to do.  If we know that we are tired or stressed out, with reflection, we may realise we need time out from our work, the kids, whatever. This may require us to express this need to our boss, partner, a friend whoever so we can meet those needs. Take it slow and give ourselves permission to speak up and have our needs met – we are important too!

This latter part is not easy for everyone as many of us are not brought up to be aware of our needs (or push them down) or to ask for help or support with our unmet needs.  In this situation we need to give ourselves an extra dose of kindness and explore what works for us with open curiosity.   We can write a list of activities which may help us get the nurturance, the emotional support and/or strength we need to deal with feelings or to find a healthy way to engage or distract ourselves from boredom.  These activities are never to escape the feelings. We need to acknowledge our feelings and thoughts first and then find the best way to stay connected to ourselves and respond to the need that is there.

A good way to start to think about this is to create a list of alternative ways or activities to respond with kindness with our emotions. For example:

  • Journal
  • Talk to a friend or family member
  • Go for a walk
  • Spend some time in  nature
  • Explore a new hobby or sport
  • Play a game 
  • Do some slow deep breaths
  • Reading a nourishing book or listening to a podcast
  • Find a therapist
  • Have a nap
  • Dance
  • Do some form of exercise or practice that connects you to your body e.g. yoga or meditation
  • Allow yourself to feel, cry, be with it.  The feelings won’t last forever.
  • Have a bath
asking for support a loving hand

Interestingly initially just sitting with our emotions is actually the best thing we can do.  As brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor points out “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”

Sometimes if we distract ourselves from the feeling it means we haven´t let it be and it can actually result in lingering. If we choose to dwell on it and/or act on it through food, for example, then we can add another layer of emotions on top of that which certainly doesn’t help us.

That all said, we need to remember that food is not bad!

Food does serve us in many ways for taste, reliability, soothing, nourishment and gives us some control.  But we also need to be honest about how it does not serve us whether it disconnects us from ourselves or numbs us to our emotions and our world.

Having a healthy balance and open awareness is always super important to allow ourselves to truly be satisfied with food and have a healthy relationship with it.

As we start to uncover the layers and disentangle our relationship with food we may find it hard to deal with our emotions or feel they are stronger, albeit temporarily. We may mourn the loss of food as our constant or only companion during difficult times.  These are normal things to experience and again a good friend, partner, psychologist or therapist may be helpful to work with if it is particularly challenging and there is trauma or buried feelings.

Freedom from emotional eating to enjoy food

In conclusion, our relationship with food is a complex one that starts the moment we are born.  To start to see our honest relationship with it requires space, awareness, compassion and a safe space to explore.  It may be an up and down journey, but by connecting to our bodies and what is going on for us with patience and kindness we can start to see our thoughts and our patterns.  Each moment, each day we can see what other ways we can fill our emotional needs instead of using food – this will require experimentation and play!  Remembering that our emotions are only fleeting and they are safe to feel – even if we are scared of them – help and support is available if needed. Vocalising our own needs to ourselves, those closest to us or a professional will support us on our journey as we break free from the emotional bonds of eating. It may take time and some peaks and troughs, but openness and persistence will pay off.  Once we have broken free from the shackles of emotional eating and all its connotations, we can then really embrace the full pleasure of food and be fully connected to who we are.

What do you think about using food to cope, I know it is a big and complex one which can bring up so many things for us? What has helped you connect to your thoughts and feelings and/or to deal with your emotions? How easy is it for you or your family to connect to their needs and voice them? I would LOVE to know your thoughts, feelings and questions, please get in touch below!

Images: Linus Nylund, National Cancer Institute, Fuu J, lilartsy

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