Cue The Cookies — Do You Use Food to Cope with Strong Emotions?
For eighteen years I went to a friend’s house every two months to get my hair cut. We’d catch up on each other’s lives, our activities, families, and pets. We didn’t have a huge amount in common, but I enjoyed her quirky personality.
Invariably the conversation would turn toward the planets. Linda was an astrology buff who sincerely believed in it. When the cat bit my toe in the middle of the night (which he did pretty frequently), it was because Mercury was in retrograde. It was kind of fun and all part of the “Linda experience.” I’d always leave with a top notch haircut and a list of auspicious dates to watch out for.
One drizzly spring day I rang Linda’s doorbell. I had lots of new and exciting things going on in my life and was looking forward to talking about it.
Her husband answered the door with a blank look in his eyes, and asked, “Why are you here?”
“I have an appointment to get my haircut,” I said.
“Linda died yesterday.”
I stared, open mouthed, stunned.
He told me he had got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and found her on the floor. She had died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 63. I hugged him, and we both cried.
When I got home I stood in the kitchen and wanted to eat, badly. Some people can’t eat when they’re grieving. I’m not one of them. I knew I wasn’t hungry, but my first inclination was to placate my shock and grief with something to eat. A lifetime of placating emotions with food was rearing its ugly head.
A New Look at Stress Eating
I’ve learned to be as prepared as one can be for times like this. If you’re the kind of person who turns to food to cope with emotions, don’t expect that to change. It won’t. Instead expect and plan for it. Here are some things you can do to make it easier.
Go easy on yourself. Expect something will happen sooner or later and that your first reaction will be to want to eat. Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to. It’s just the way we roll.
Keep your environment clean. I didn’t overeat in this instance because there was nothing to reach for. A box of cookies could live on our shelf for months, but sooner or later I know I’m going to be in the right mood and if it’s there, I’ll sit down and eat the whole thing. At this moment I was looking for an immediate distraction and my kitchen didn’t give it to me.
Have a plan. What’s a better choice? In this case, it was air popped popcorn with nutritional yeast. Was I still eating to distract myself from my emotions? Yes. Was I making a healthier choice about what I ate? Yep. One of my basic guidelines is to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’ve had enough. But in cases like this, when extreme emotions are in control, it’s ok to eat if you’re not hungry. Just remember that there are better alternatives.
Recognize that the food is a distraction not a cure. Eating in response to any kind of stress alters our brain chemistry by flooding our body with feel good neurotransmitters and hormones—for a few minutes. I finished eating my popcorn and my friend was still dead. I was still grieving. No amount or type of food was going to change that.
RAIN on it. RAIN is a meditation acronym standing for Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nurture. You can try this 15-minute RAIN guided meditation. I recommend you practice it before you need it. Like any practice, the more you do it the more ingrained it becomes. That way when strong emotions take over, you can do it on the spot to help mitigate them.
Hard stuff happens. Strong emotions well up. If you’re the type of person who uses food to cope, this isn’t a time to white-knuckle your urge to eat. Instead acknowledge the feelings and make the best choice possible. If you’re not in the middle of strong feelings now, you can help yourself out in the future. Clean up that kitchen. Practice the RAIN meditation. Sit with your feelings today, whatever they are. No cookies required.