Fears are educated into us, and can if we wish, be educated out.” – Karl Augustus Menninger. We are often trained from childhood to stifle our feelings when we are told not to cry. Being told not to get angry or sad, being told not to cry and even hearing ‘don’t be scared’ all adds up. By the time we get to adulthood, we have been taught that feelings are ‘bad’ and should be avoided. You could say that the emotional part of the brain giving us these feelings, our inner toddler, is regularly ignored. This means that you are not hearing the messages you are trying to give yourself. Your feelings are your mind and body’s way of trying to tell you something. How does food fit in? As children we might be given food to cheer us up and this teaches us that food can be used to block out painful feelings. Blocking out feelings with food can easily become so normal that we do not know we are doing it. When we keep blocking out feelings with food, the feelings will keep getting stronger and stronger, and we need more and more food to block them out.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions” - Brené Brown. Many of us do not like feeling sad, angry, or scared. It is not pleasant but when we avoid uncomfortable emotions, we also risk missing the nice ones. When we are so used to ignoring our feelings, or covering them with ice cream, there is a risk of not feeling ‘good’ emotions such as joy, excitement and even love. Even if we do feel these, we are probably not feeling them as much as we could. Blocking out feelings is a bit like wearing earplugs. Rather than selectively muffling feelings, we risk turning them all down low.
Have you ever been so stressed that you cannot think clearly? Being worried makes you worse at things 1. This explains why many people struggle with tests if they feel very nervous. High levels of distressing emotions can switch off the logical part of your brain so that you are unable to think clearly. However, if we can catch our feelings early enough, we can stop them causing a problem. By noticing the bodily sensations of feelings, we can listen, hear and understand them. This helps us to calm down and allow our logical (Mum) brains to join the party, which can stop us from reaching for the ice cream. As an example, if someone pulls out in front of you in traffic, you might feel angry. If you notice the first signs of anger, such as feeling hot, just noticing that feeling can give your logical (adult) brain time to intervene. You might be able to think of a reason for that person’s bad driving such as a medical emergency. This can be enough to stop this anger turning into uncontrollable rage.
“Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself” – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Most of us want to feel less stressed and happier. The key to this is not through comfort eating. Comfort eating actually adds to the stress because we then also feel bad about ourselves for eating unhealthy food. Instead, noticing feelings and hearing what they have to say can help reduce stress. Almost without fail, when I suggest that someone tries to ‘feel’ their unpleasant feelings, it is met with confusion. It sounds counterintuitive. Take fear as an example, the power of fear is in the anticipation. When you run at fear head-on, it loses power. Fear does not know what to do with itself if you look it right in the eye. For example, when nervous I used to blush which I used to find embarrassing. Being worried about it only made it worse. To face it head on, I tried blushing on purpose in a meeting. As soon as I tried that, it was not scary anymore. The fear of blushing went away, it lost its power, and I did not even blush that time – I could not to it. I am not scared of blushing anymore, even though it might still happen sometimes.
“Thoughts could leave deeper scars than almost anything else” – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suppressing feelings leads to dwelling or rumination (for me, it also led to eating chips). When feelings are not allowed to speak, and are covered up with food, they end up popping back up at annoying times, like when you are trying to go to sleep. Dwelling on thoughts takes so much energy that you are unlikely to have the energy to get the perspective needed to solve your current problems. Now when I get a craving for chips, I know that it is because something else is going on. This allows me to listen to any feelings and solve that problem, which is usually that I need a rest. So, rather than eating chips or ice cream, we can learn to let our feelings give us their message. Feeling your feelings is not as scary as it may sound.
“Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we choose which ones to surf” – Jonatan Martensson. Your body’s chemical response to feelings only lasts 90 seconds, the rest of ‘the pain’ is in your mind. Ignoring feelings and dwelling on them can make them last much longer 2. As well as reducing comfort eating, experiencing feelings can reduce stress and build confidence. I like the description of riding feelings like waves, although intense for a short time, they will subside. Much like actual surfing, riding feelings allows stress to be replaced by satisfaction, relaxation, and peace.
If we ignore the feelings at the time and do not let them deliver their message, they will turn up somewhere else. Have you ever got home from a stressful day at work and snapped at the kids? The kids probably were not any different to normal, but you could have been feeling more stressed, angry, or anxious than normal. The initial 90-second fight or flight response is usually caused by catecholamines and fades quickly. Emotions such as anger can also trigger a background readiness ‘for fighting’. This background readiness sees adrenal and cortical hormones increase and these surges can last for hours even days 1. This means ‘stress’ can stick around long after the initial 90-second fight or flight response has gone. Some people are always in a state of this background readiness to fight and this is where we can struggle to manage our temper and resort to comfort eating. Luckily, there are ways that we can help ourselves calm down. One way is to understand our feelings.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less” – Marie Curie. When you get used to surfing your feelings, it is time to understand their message. It is like your inner toddler will carry on screaming at you for ice cream until you understand them. If you have noticed feelings behind craving food, what was it like? Often a feeling is has a bodily sensation like butterflies, fidgeting or a hollow feeling in your chest or stomach. Although we cannot know for sure, feelings probably feel different for everyone. There is not a right or a wrong answer for how it feels for you. Here is an exercise to start understanding your feelings by trying to have a conversation with them:
Notice that you are feeling something
Take a couple of deep breaths and close your eyes if you like.
Think how it feels in your body
Ask yourself: “What are you trying to tell me?”
Listen to the answer
Have a conversation with the feeling so they can deliver their message
Thank the feeling for the message and wait for it to leave
Next, it is time to start realising what is underneath these common feelings and where this message comes from. It has been suggested that sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, and vulnerability are the feelings that are most likely to cause problems 3, are you feeling any of those?
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment – Marcus Aurelius” When we are in background readiness mode, and worried about something, if our logical brain had a chance to step in, it would probably tell us that we are over-reacting. This could be because it (unconsciously) reminds us of something in our past which we did not process at the time. Understanding what lies beneath chronic worries can help them to fade. Try doing the exercise above adding a step to notice any memories that pop up in your mind. This memory could be feeding your worries. However, for some people, re-experiencing past memories can be too traumatic to try alone. It can be overwhelming uncovering all these things, and it is sensible to start slowly and have support from a trained coach, counsellor, or health professional if you are worried that past feelings may be too intense. Once these feelings have been experienced, their hold over you and your eating is likely to fade. Understanding what is beneath food cravings can be enough to allow your logical brain to step in and choose to act differently.
If re-experiencing old emotions feels too intense, you could try some other ways of releasing and transforming unpleasant feelings, using the ‘powerful’ techniques below:
Positive visualisation: try visualising yourself as superwoman or stepping into a beam of powerful light before a stressful event.
Only 90-seconds: take a few deep breaths to notice what you are feeling and try and sit with the bodily sensation for 90-seconds or until it leaves.
Workout: try going for a walk or run, jumping up and down or doing some yoga. ‘Nervous energy’ can be transformed into movement energy relatively easily. The bodily sensations of exercise (such as sweating, high heart rate) are like those of anxiety. Exercise can help us to process these feelings more positively.
Exchange it: If you get nervous, try telling yourself you are excited instead. The bodily sensations of anxiety and excitement feel similar but labelling a feeling as excitement does not seem as scary.
Remember: If you are worried about an event, think of something similar that you have done that went well. This will help convince your mind that you do not need to be scared.
Fail in your mind: Think of a (realistic) worst-case scenario to put the pressure in perspective. Can it really be that bad?
Unleash. Scream if you can find somewhere to do this safely where you will not scare anyone. It can help let out some of the feelings to allow yourself to get a bit more perspective.
Let it out. Breathe. You could try focusing on breathing out for twice as long as you breathe in. Alternatively try any sort of breathing exercises that you have found helpful in the past could help.
1. Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New edition. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; 1996.
2. Taylor JB. My Stroke of Insight. Hodder Paperbacks; 2009.
3. 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience, and Authenticity. 2019.
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