Feelings are powerful and can sometimes seem overwhelming. Feelings can drive us to food to manage them. I was completely unaware that I was an emotional eater until I started working with the Beyond Chocolate approach. I hadn’t realised that I ate to manage sadness, anxiety and anger. I also ate when I was happy because food was a treat and a way to celebrate (think birthday cake!). I ate when I was bored, and when I was distracted or busy. I ate when it was a meal time and I ate in between meal times. I spent two years never letting myself get hungry because I had read somewhere that it was dangerous to let myself feel hungry – I would go beserk and trample everyone in my frantic rush to the food. I would become completely out of control and would massively overeat.
Basically, my feelings were all over the place. I was probably unaware of even feeling most of them – they were in control, I was driven back and forth to the kitchen or the cafe or the canteen totally at their mercy. But this is unhelpful behaviour both for the feelings and for my body. Eating to smother emotions can mean that the emotions will come back, sometimes stronger at a time when I am less able to manage them. Eating to cope with emotions means that I am eating more than my body needs and this could cause me to put on weight, which I don’t want to do any more.
When I started working with Beyond Chocolate I was invited to identify my feelings for almost the first time. What was I feeling? Was I happy, sad, angry or afraid? Essentially all feelings can be put into one of those four categories at varying degrees of intensity. So was I content, gloomy, worried, cross? Was I ecstatic, depressed, terrified or furious? How did I find out what I was feeling? And what did it mean once I’d identified the particular emotion?
Unless we are the sort of person whose feelings are very easy to identify and access, tuning in will help with pinning down how we are feeling. It can help initially to see if we can put the feeling into one of the four broad categories of happy, sad, angry or afraid – even if we are not sure of the exact intensity of the emotion.
Once we’ve identified the emotion, there is no need to scold ourselves out of feeling it. Our feelings are not trivial or silly or self-indulgent or weak – they are just our feelings and they will change. Often, if we tune in several times in a day, we can find that we go through all four of those major emotions one after the other. If we decided we no longer want to eat to manage that rollercoaster of emotions what we can choose to do instead is to feel them or express them. What this could look like is:
I am feeling sad. I will sit with this sadness. I could explore what is making me feel this way if it helps or I could just accept that right now I am feeling sad. If I’m really very sad, I could cry if it would help express the emotion. I am not attempting to cheer myself up, I am accepting that I am sad right now. Maybe I could post to the Beyond Chocolate Facebook group. Maybe I could tell someone who would sympathise without attempting to cheer me up. Maybe I will sit with this emotion for a set amount of time and put on a timer. Whatever I decide to do, I am committed to not eating to deal with sadness any more.
I am feeling anxious. There are so many ‘what ifs’ running round my head. I could choose to catastrophise and pursue these ‘what ifs’ to their conclusion. What if I don’t get a job? I would have to cut down all my expenses. I might have to borrow money at a huge rate of interest. I might end up in terrible debt and have to re-mortgate or sell my house to pay it back. If I had to sell the house, I’d have to rent somewhere really small and without a job I’d run out of money to pay the rent. If I can’t pay the rent I’d end up homeless and there are no council houses for someone in my position so I’ll end up sleeping on the streets and could be attacked or murdered…. Following the anxious thought like this right to the end of the catastrophic scenario we harass ourselves with can help to defuse it and I am no longer eating to take the edge off that anxiety.
I am feeling FURIOUS. I could write down exactly what that person did which has made me feel like this and then burn it. I could thump cushions or throw ice cubes at a wall. I could go into a toilet cubicle and do Angry Lion grimaces. I could post a rant on the Beyond Chocolate Facebook page and write out my rage, knowing it will be welcome and nobody will try to ‘fix’ it for me. I could ring a friend who knows me well enough to just listen and let me get it off my chest. I could throw a toddler tantrum. What I am not going to do is eat to soothe this feeling or attempt to reason myself out of feeling it.
I am happy! What can I eat to celebrate? Wait! Am I hungry? Actually, no … well, what else could I do to express this joy? Dance? Sing loudly to a favourite tune? Go out for a walk in the sunshine? Post on the Beyond Chocolate Facebook group and share my joy?
The point behind these scenarios is to FEEL the feeling. We can control how long we are willing to feel it for by using a timer and setting it to anything we want. We can choose to eat to manage the feeling once the timer goes off (it can take some practice and we need to build up muscle and resistance, consider this timed feeling as training) – but the main thing is that we are making a choice. We are not being blindly driven by our feelings to eat when we no longer want to. And, the more we Tune In, the more we know about what we are actually feeling, the more choice we have about what to do with the feelings and the less we are likely to eat to manage them.