Healthy Choices with Health Coach Liza Baker: Emotional eating – feeling our feelings

In May’s column, we dove into the topic of emotional eating by looking at the differences between physical and emotional hunger, and in June’s we took a look at our triggers—not the emotions that drive us to eat but what causes those emotions in the first place.

(Yes, hello, Pandemic—I see you: you’ve been 365+ days of triggers!)

This month, we’re going to examine what emotions arise from our triggers, what happens when we judge ourselves for feeling them—and what can happen if we allow ourselves to feel them.

A range of emotions

We often talk about a range of emotions—and researchers seem to have narrowed the most basic ones down to anywhere from four to eight.

Over the past seven years of working with clients who eat emotionally, my completely unscientific conclusion is that 90% of them point to sadness, fear, and anger as the primary emotions driving their eating.

No wonder so many of us turned to emotional eating over the past year: what has Covid-19 brought us other than a lot of sadness, fear, and anger?

Another cycle of stuck

Last month, I brought up the “cycle of stuck” that is emotional eating. And there’s another cycle of stuck at play here.

Many of us grew up believing that showing emotion was not acceptable: suck it up, chin up, push through, keep a stiff upper lip, big girls/boys don’t cry, etc.

Showing an emotion sort of became equated with feeling one: it’s as though we can’t trust ourselves to feel an emotion without letting it play out in socially unacceptable ways.

And somehow, food and drink—so easily available to most of us—became an acceptable way to stuff down our anger, drown our sorrows, and quiet our fears.

Talk about a negative cycle! We feel something and judge ourselves for feeling it, so we eat or drink too much or make poor food choices, then we judge ourselves for doing that, so we feel worse—but we can’t allow ourselves to feel that, so on and on it goes.

Feeling our feelings

The way out of this cycle of stuck is often not easy—and it can be fairly simple (and still requires practice.)

When I work with clients who can’t seem to break a negative habit, I like to say that there are two ways to ask the same question:

  2. Why did I do (eat) that again?

The first question is full of self-judgment, and it’s the end of the conversation and the beginning of the cycle of stuck where we beat ourselves up and keep on the downward spiral: Why can’t I do this simple thing? I’m such a loser. There must be something wrong with me. I’m so stupid. I have no self-discipline, no willpower….

Self-judgment leads to blame and shame and the feeling that we can’t trust ourselves to make a better choice—ever.

The second question is full of curiosity, and it’s the beginning of a new conversation, a way out of the cycle because it opens the door to the potential to change: Why did I do that again?

  • Was I with someone who makes poor choices?
  • Was I allowing someone else to pressure me into it?
  • Was I in a place where better choices weren’t available?
  • What could I do to set myself up for making the better choice next time?

Curiosity leads to self-compassion and the feeling that we can trust ourselves to make a better choice the next time. It allows us to feel our feelings and trust that we won’t act them out in inappropriate ways.

  • We might need to go in the bedroom and punch our pillow when we’re frustrated with our teen—that way we won’t be tempted to slap her (or eat the whole bag of chips).
  • We might need to go away and have a good cry when we’re sad—that way we won’t fall apart after a contentious meeting (or eat the entire chocolate cake).
  • We might need to go in the walk-in cooler at work and scream when we’re angry at our coworkers—that way we won’t tell them off (or have one too many drinks with dinner).
  • We might need to simply put our arms around ourselves and tell ourselves we’ll be okay when fear comes up instead of eating the whole sleeve of Girl Scout cookies.

In some instances, simply allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and finding a non-food outlet for them is enough to break the cycle of stuck: the emotion passes, and we don’t spiral into self-judgment.

And here’s a fun aside: the average lifespan of an emotion is two to 20 minutes. That’s it! Of course, I’m not talking about deep emotions such as grief or rage, but the sort of daily emotions such as anger and sadness normally last only two to 20 minutes.

The challenge: play toddler

If you’re following along with the series and trying to address what might be emotional eating, here’s what you’ve been doing:

  • Playing scientist: determining whether your hunger is physical or emotional
  • Playing journalist: identifying the trigger of your emotional hunger

This week, we’re going to play toddler! Your goal is to name the emotion that is being triggered and is driving you to eat—and then allow yourself to feel it, much as a toddler would: if you’re sad, cry; if you’re angry, punch a pillow; if you’re scared, put your arms around yourself and tell yourself it will all be alright.

And then, if you still want to eat that food, go ahead and eat it and give yourself some grace around it. This work takes time, and we’re still not at the final stage.

Later this month, we’ll dig into the fourth step of cycling out of emotional eating; in the meantime, let me know by email what emotions you identify and how you allowed yourself to feel them!

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.

Healthy Choices with Health Coach Liza Baker: Emotional eating – what are your triggers?