"Well, after he left, I remember going to the fridge and standing there looking for my favorites – strawberries, chocolate…then chips and salsa…then a handful of caramel corn. I ate until my stomach was uncomfortably full, sat down, stared out the window and realized that I still felt empty,” recounted my client, Kate (name changed to protect the client), during our latest session.
The realization of self-medicating with foods for unpleasant emotions (in this case, loneliness) made a huge impact on Kate. She became aware of the downward spiral of an unacknowledged emotion, turning to a (usually unhealthy) food, and ultimately beating herself up over the food choice.
One of the reasons we eat is because our culture promotes dining in conjunction with emotionally charged events – Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah and Valentine's Day. We eat when people are born, when people die, when we get an “A” on an exam, when we don’t get an “A” on the exam —we use food as reward and a punishment. Food is tied to our successes and failures, our joy and sadness, our excitement and anxiety.
Our emotions calm down as we anesthetize ourselves with salty, fatty or sugary foods. Our neurotransmitters increase production of serotonin, dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals. Once we stop eating, we start the emotional descent again and eat more to temporarily feel better. After the cycle repeats a bit longer, we usually find ourselves physically full and feeling badly about our food choices.
In the cases of emotional eating, I work with my clients to be more mindful when eating and to build a reserve of what I call “soul-nourishing” activities – things that feed you but don’t come on a plate.
With the practice of mindfulness, we learn to cultivate the possibility of releasing ourselves from reactive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. Eating mindfully teaches us to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide decisions to begin eating and to cease eating.
Soul-nourishing activities involve taking care of yourself. Many people put themselves at the bottom of their own list of priorities; the result of making yourself a low priority is burnout, exhaustion and resentment. It is crucial that we take time out for ourselves to rest, relax and rejuvenate. Soul-nourishing activities can be done in limited amounts of time and can be as easy as taking 15 minutes to give yourself a pedicure. Any activity that makes us feel more positively and joyful is where we would start our list. Think of things that bring you comfort and have a restorative quality; is it journaling your gratitude? How about a hot bath or a couple of hours reading a book? Make a list and keep it on hand next time you are feeling raw emotions; this may prevent the drive to numb out the feelings with food.
My goal is to assist clients in learning how to mindfully eat and improve nutrition without deprivation, guilt, fear or shame. I am happy to report Kate* is eating more mindfully and engaging in self-nurturing activities and is no longer beholden to eating her emotions.
List of 10 soul-nourishing ideas
- Give compliments and praise to those around you.
- Practice relaxation techniques.
- Keep a journal to write out your emotions and gratitude.
- Visualize what life will be like after the emotion passes.
- Surround yourself with friends and positive people.
- Exercise (choose something you enjoy or that has a mind/body component like yoga or tai chi).
- Learn proper self-care (get enough sleep, have a nutritious diet, & plenty of water).
- Get outside and into nature (try a walking meditation, spend time near the water, watch the sky change colors as it sets).
- Listen to music — and dance!
- Use your passion and creativity in a hobby or career.