“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 parent 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 emotional and binge eating. Binge eating adds to the stress because we then also feel bad about ourselves for eating this way. Instead, noticing feelings and hearing what they have to say can help reduce stress. 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.