For too many of us, beginning when we were children, food was often used to soothe, comfort, reward, and console. Now as adults we have automated the reflex to eat when we feel bored, angry, depressed, anxious, stressed, or frustrated, or when we have emotional needs that are not being met. In the short term, this coping mechanism can be very effective, but if we rely on it too often, it can seem to be a nearly impossible habit to break — especially for people who struggle with their weight.
Learning how to balance our emotional relationship with food though the practice of a weekly fast is beneficial to long-term success with healthy eating and living.
People don't always know how to identify their emotional needs — or how to get those needs met once they have been identified. For example people are often prepared to admit that they eat out of boredom. If boredom is truly the eating trigger, then caloric consumption will obviously never fill that need. What is going unfulfilled might be the need for activity which means that a more suitable alternative might be taking a walk, reading a book, or doing some activity around the house. These are perfect choices if one is truly bored.
However, it is also easy at times to inaccurately identify true needs or trigger. With further analysis people often realize that boredom is really just loneliness in disguise. If you are experiencing loneliness, then none of the activities listed above will fulfill the true need, which is companionship, or at a minimum, contact with other people. Therefore, calling a friend, going out and people watching, or taking a walk to visit some neighbors would be better choices than activities like reading a book or straightening the house.
The better you get at identifying your "true need" in the moment, the better chance you have of identifying the most effective coping strategy to fulfill that need.
Of course, many people have difficulty identifying and understanding their emotional needs. Sometimes it takes practice to better understand and integrate your emotional experiences, as opposed to trying to ignore them or stuff them away with food. Here are some strategies that may help. This is the general framework for the practice of mindfulness.
Practice Emotional Awareness
Connect. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Breathe comfortably, taking gentle and full breaths. Tune in to your body and focus on the sensations you are experiencing. Allow your stomach to rise, and then your chest. Notice your inhalation flowing past the tip of your nose and filling your lungs. Turn your attention to how your body feels in the moment without judging or interpreting. Just focus on the moment.
Observe.When you are relaxed and feeling in tune with yourself, ask yourself the following kinds of questions: What's going on? What am I sensing? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? Try to do this while maintaining the relaxation generated in the previous step.
Evaluate. Continuing in this relaxed state, think about the answers to the questions you have just posed, and based on those answers, try to tune in to your true needs.
Keep in mind that you can do this at any time throughout the day. It only takes a moment or two.
Cope in the Moment
Expressing your emotions may seem strange if you're the kind of person who is not used to "indulging" yourself by getting emotional, but it is a positive and essential part of a healthy, balanced life. There are times when emotional expression involves letting yourself cry when you are sad, or sharing your feelings with someone close to you — maybe one of your supporters. Writing in your journal is another great way to express your feelings. Exercise, or another physical activity, such as taking a walk or dancing, may also relieve emotional tension. And finally, stress management techniques, like deep breathing and meditation exercises, are excellent tools.
Pinpoint the Trigger
In addition to trying to learn as much as you can about your emotional state in the moment, it is important to identify emotional triggers. Think about what triggered your desire to eat: Was it a specific event or a conflict? A memory? Did you have a distressing thought or series of thoughts? When you pinpoint the trigger, analyze why it had that effect on you and how you might respond to it differently, without resorting to food.
Confront the Situation
Ask yourself if you need to eat. If the answer is no, then try to figure out what it is you really need. Perhaps you need to take a break from whatever you're doing and relax. Maybe you need some cheering up. It could be affection you crave, or positive affirmation. It could be the need for resolution or closure. Then again, maybe the issue is deeper than that and requires you to improve your assertiveness skills or set better boundaries. If the problem seems too big for you to handle on your own, consider seeking the help of a professional, such as a psychologist or other qualified therapist.
Consider the Alternatives
There are alternatives to emotional eating. Fall back on any other positive the coping skills you've developed in your life. Plan the steps you can take to change, accept, or cope with the emotional and unplanned eating urges you're experiencing. And work toward developing a healthy emotional state.
It takes practice to identify your true needs and emotional triggers; but with a regular weekly fasting practice you will get better and better at it, allowing you to be able to apply all of these skills in the moment and lead a healthier life.