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How to stop eating your feelings

FeelingsBy Rebecca Stern

An individual can develop an unsatisfying relationship with another person for many reasons. Below are just a couple of reasons:

  • An individual with boundaries that are too strict may have difficulty in getting close to other people.
  • An individual with very few boundaries may find themselves getting walked over in relationships.

Just like with a relationship to another human, our relationship with food can go haywire when we have not established healthy boundaries with food. For example, it can sometimes be hard to say no to food when it promises to make you feel better – in fact it can be quite seductive. This begs an important question:

How do I establish healthy boundaries in relation to eating so that I am not creating too many or too few rules for myself? 

An individual’s healthy eating boundaries can be violated when they attempt to influence, change or control their emotions or prevent an emotion from getting started in the first place. Food can be a way to attempt to control one’s emotions, to either push them away once they get started or to stop emotions from happening in the first place.

When using food as a strategy for controlling emotions becomes habitual, a person’s relationship with food becomes ruled by emotions. This irrevocably impacts upon the relationship to food as a healthy relationship is built on trust, intuition and safety. When an individual knows they need to eat because their body tells them they are hungry, it is easy to trust the body. Whereas, when an individual starts using their emotions to guide when to eat or when not to eat, this trust is lost.

As humans we are all born with a healthy relationship to food. For example, newborn babies cry when they are hungry and only eat until they are full. Somewhere along the way, it can be possible to lose a sense for this natural intuition we have as humans to eat to our needs. Certainly, in a culture where it does not always feel safe to express our emotions, it can be easy to find other ways to ‘swallow’ our emotions. For example, instead of sitting with our feelings after a long day at work, and processing them by:

  • going for a walk
  • writing in a journal
  • doing meditation
  • calling a friend

It may feel easier and quicker to sit in front of the TV and suppress feelings through comfort eating.

To reclaim your relationship to eating it is important to find ways to cope with your emotions other than using food. Adaptive emotion regulation requires the ability to:

  • observe or monitor emotions
  • label emotions
  • and finally, to modify emotional reactions
    • Including the ability to accept and tolerate emotional experiences when emotions cannot, in the short run, be changed.

Many people believe that feelings are useless and only cause us troubles. And this can certainly feel true if they become overwhelming. But emotions are important and can guide us to our needs, if we befriend them and develop a more comfortable relationship to them. Some ways to befriend your emotions are to:

  • Start finding out more about them – what functions do sadness, anger, anxiety, disgust, guilt or shame play in your life.
  • You may want to find out the needs underlying your emotions and find out whether there is another way to get those needs met without turning to food. For example, when a feeling of boredom comes up, instead of turning to food, it may be helpful to find other activities to stimulate you.
  • If you are finding it is hard to identify your emotions – that is okay and perfectly normal, particularly if you are used to ‘swallowing’ them. Sometimes tuning into the body can give us some clues as most emotions are held within the body. For example, worry can manifest itself as tightness in the throat or stomach, whereas, sadness can show up as a general feeling of heaviness.
  • It may also be helpful to seek further assistance to find out more about your emotions and to work towards developing a closer relationship with eating.

At BodyMatters we offer offer counselling and support for those who want to build a more healthy relationship with food. Please contact us or visit our website for more information.

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