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Research shows that most approaches to dietary modification for weight loss are doomed for failure, not because there is anything necessarily wrong with the diet plan, but because seldom are emotional issues sufficiently addressed. The consumption of food is often used as a vehicle to distract or otherwise distance one’s self from difficult emotional experiences. This is often done without conscious attention. In other words, we are often mindless eaters. We have learned through a large array of personal and cultural conditioning experiences that emotions are dangerous, overpowering and irrational, and therefore in need of subjugation and control. We engage in many actions to avoid powerful feelings such as shame, fear, loneliness, boredom, alienation, sadness and so on. The cheap and abundant availability of food makes it an easy vehicle to temporarily disengage one from such feelings. Physiologically, certain “comfort foods” cause various brain chemicals to be released that provide a transient sense of pleasure, calm and nurturance.
In order to be able to make wise choices in terms of what, when and how much to eat, it is essential that we all learn to eat with a greater degree of emotional mindfulness and presence. This will not be an easy task since years of conditioning and practice have taught us to utilize food to distance ourselves from negative feelings and even to celebrate positive feelings.
It is important to not make food into a control war or a battle of will. It is only by learning emotional presence that we can durably adhere to sound approaches to food and eating. Below are five important methods to help guide emotional presence that can radically alter our relationship to food.
Learn to discriminate appetite from hunger. There are many factors that can initiate appetite or a desire to eat, independent of a true biological need to eat. Emotions are certainly one of the most powerful factors that causes this internal confusion. So before reflexively eating, ask yourself the question, “Am I truly biologically hungry?” Even just building in a short delay between the desire and the response can make a difference in our choices.
Emotional labeling is a critical step to begin the formation of emotional presence. When contemplating eating, especially when it is evident that it is not due to biological hunger, attempt to label whatever emotions you may be having. Identify as specifically as you can whether you are sad, lonely, ashamed or whatever else you may be feeling. Labels such as “hurt”, “anxious,” or “depressed” are often not helpful since they mask other more specific feeling states. It may take some time and practice to develop “emotional literacy”. Research shows that this skill actually changes how our brain functions such that we become less reactively guided by primitive drive states and more likely to make conscious and rational choices.
Fully open to whatever emotions arise. Pay deep attention to the place(s) in your body where these emotions dwell. This takes one out of one’s head and into their experience. Continue to label feelings as they arise. They may morph and change as feelings surface. Say to your self, “There is shame,” or “There is loneliness.” This practice helps to maintain an objective view of transient feelings and helps one to recognize that these are fleeting and transient states that don’t define one’s being. The less we identify with these states, the less likely we are to be reactively pulled and compelled by them. That is the difference between being awake and blind (emotionally speaking).
Practice “stimulus control.” We tend to eat in a variety of settings and activities and associate eating with those cues. Therefore, through processes of association and conditioning, one can come to elicit the other. When eating, do so in a deliberate and focused manner. Don’t eat while driving, in front of the TV, talking on the phone, texting or whatever. If at home, eat at the dining room table or wherever is designated for eating.
Eat like a master chef with full attention and enjoyment. When eating, really taste your food. Pay close attention to the tastes, textures, aromas and physical/bodily sensations. Eating should be thoroughly enjoyed. Secondarily, this often forces us to eat more slowly and deliberately which allows satiety and fullness signals in our brain to be processed. By eating with presence, food can be a more deeply enjoyed experience which spontaneously leads to a healthier relationship with this critical source of sustenance and health.
Dr. Jerry Duvinsky is a Bronx born clinical psychologist and practices in upstate New York. Duvinsky provides an integrationist approach to therapy--combining elements of behaviorism, psychodynamics, developmental theory and mindfulness based practices into a cohesive and pragmatic approach toward helping individuals face difficult life challenges and emotional/behavioral symptoms. Read more about his system of Integrative Mindful Exposure in his two books, How to Lose Control and Gain Emotional Freedom: Embracing the “Dark” Emotions Through Integrative Mindful Exposure and Perfect Pain/Perfect Shame: A Journey into Radical Presence: Embracing Shame Through Integrative Mindful Exposure: A Meeting of Two Sciences of Mind. Find out more about Dr. Jerry Duvinsky on his website here.