As we enter the month of April, we are truly stepping into spring. Here in Vermont it will still be some time before we actually see green grass, but as the snow melts and the ground begins to thaw, the earth begins to reawaken. As it starts to wake up from its winter sleep, the change that occurs is phenomenal.
Awakening is a word I often use when talking with the women here at Green Mountain about emotional or binge eating.
Emotional Eating In Autopilot Mode
When we emotionally eat, we’re on autopilot, which can be likened to sleep. Going on autopilot occurs frequently in life — how many times, for example, have you driven on the same stretch of road, arrived at your destination and thought to yourself ‘I don’t even remember the ride’?
Similarly, when it comes to emotional eating, we can easily go on auto-pilot because if we’ve been using food to cope for some time, we’ve developed “Grand Canyons” of neural pathways in our brain – ways of behaving when certain emotions strike that we fall into out of habit.
However, by awakening to what we’re doing in the moment, and beginning to eat more consciously, purposefully and decisively, we begin to create new neural pathways.
Pay Attention When Eating To Stay Awake
What I’m referring to is literally staying awake while we are eating. Paying attention to our hunger and satiety, to our taste buds, our feelings, and our thoughts in the moment brings us out of ‘the deep sleep’ – out of auto-pilot — allowing us to make conscious decisions throughout the eating experience.
Would we suddenly notice hunger and satiety cues? Would we notice some should/shouldn’t messages? Would we notice fears, anxieties, and stressors?
Remember that when we’re tuned out, it’s often because we’re stuffing another, usually more uncomfortable, emotion.
During the stress response, when we’re in fight or flight, we tend to comfort eat because…well…we’re stressed and need comfort.
Comfort eating is ok as long as we have other tools for dealing with the stress and for finding comfort, too.
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So, how do we wake-up to our emotional eating?
Here at Green Mountain, we help women learn how to surf the urge. The idea is that generally when we emotionally eat, we’re not necessarily hungry. Practicing the following step-by-step exercise before eating helps wake us up to what we’re doing in the moment and helps with going off auto-pilot around food.
4 Steps to Manage Emotional Eating
1. Take a breath.
2. Ask yourself – Am I hungry?
If yes – eat mindfully. That is, check in with your hunger cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.
3. If no – ask yourself – What’s up?
What am I thinking? Feeling? And most importantly, Am I willing to try an alternative first before turning to food to self-soothe?
An alternative to food can be anything that is soothing to you – some deep breathing, a cup of tea, a bath, calling a friend, drawing, reading, playing music, etc.
4. Eat Mindfully
If you’re not willing to find an alternative and just want to eat, then…well…eat. But eat mindfully – and again, check in with your cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.
Remember that it’s ok to eat emotionally; food can definitely be a coping tool. But to use food as an effective coping tool, we want to pay attention to how often we use food and how much food we use, as well as what other tools we have for coping.
Much like the earth thawing in the spring, and being open to seeds of possible new life, I hope you open yourself up to the possibility of awakening to your eating experience, and what new awareness going off autopilot may bring for you.