This is the second in a two-part article on what triggers emotional eating.
Do you have urges to eat when you’re not physically hungry? Do you have cravings that seem to come out of nowhere? It can be easy to feel out of control and blame yourself. It’s not your fault! It can be difficult to know what is going on and even more difficult to know what to do about it. In this article I explore additional factors that may contribute to food cravings and how to recognize them.
Hormonal imbalance, low blood sugar and low serotonin levels can all trigger food cravings, particularly for a quick pick me up. Technically, in this case, your eating isn’t emotional, it’s physical. However, it’s still a good idea to look for related emotional components. Often our lifestyle can contribute to an imbalance in our body chemistry. Things such as stress, lack of joy or connection with others, or lack of sunlight can impact our bodies. Our stress hormones are also released when our physiological needs aren’t met such as letting yourself get too hungry, thirsty, or tired and “pushing through.” This is hard on your body! Assess your lifestyle habits and see where your body may be out of balance.
Make sure you are getting all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs and have your hormones checked by your doctor if you suspect this may be an issue, including blood sugar. Hormonal fluctuations or imbalances can trigger cravings, particularly sugar cravings. Many women are familiar with PMS related cravings. Other hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid, and adrenals can also trigger cravings.
Pay attention to your mood and engage in serotonin boosting activities such increased sunlight, massage, exercise and remembering happy events. Boost your dopamine with rewards other than food. Focus on setting small, achievable goals for yourself and soak up the rewards of having accomplished something when they are complete.
Here’s a serotonin boosting exercise you can try and if this works for you, do this often to boost your mood:
EXERCISE: Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Think of a warm, heartfelt memory. It can be a recent memory or one from the past. Really embrace it. Take several minutes to feel all the sensations, colors, textures, aromas, and sounds involved in the memory. Notice what colors are present, notice who or what things are present, pay attention to what you hear, sense, or smell. Really get a good picture of this memory using all of your senses. Next, place your hand on your heart. Feel the memory deep in your heart, deep in your whole being. Resonate with the memory for several more minutes. Finally, open your eyes and sense the calmness about you.
Emotions – All of Them
Our emotions are designed to flow, to move through us. However, when we feel threatened our primitive brain wants to keep us safe and avoid any threats of danger. Our brain can’t tell the difference between internal and external threats, real or not real and thus, often puts emotions in the category of dangerous threat. What this means is that when triggered by an emotion, particularly a strong emotion, whether it is positive or negative, the experience can take us out of homeostasis and activate an instinct to run away. The emotion then becomes stuck, suppressed, or repressed inside, which triggers compulsive behavior such as a craving or automatic trigger to eat. It gets more complicated because often, eating provides some initial relief. We get some soothing from the first few bites, which reinforces this pattern.
The good news is that our brains can be trained to respond differently with practice. By feeling our emotions as they come, we let them flow and release and can use our thinking brain to balance them.
Here are some steps to working with emotions as they arise in your body.
1. Identify emotions that are present and notice any related sensations in the body. Don’t worry about getting the exact words right, just describe what is present for you. Not only does this connect us with our emotions, but it also uses our thinking brain to help balance.
2. Acknowledge the feelings and accept that these emotions/sensations are present; let go of struggling against them, at least for this moment. Breathe into the sensations and allow this experience to be as it is. It’s important not to try and “resist” unpleasant emotions even we will have the urge to move against or away from them. When we “resist” them or try and make them go away, it can actually make them get stuck and result in secondary emotions and more cravings. Emotions need to move, to flow, which actually helps them dissipate.
3. Validation – recognize that these emotions are present for a valid reason. It is understandable that you are feeling this way, even if you’re not sure why. You can use words such as “It makes sense that you feel this way.” “It’s understandable or ok to feel this way.” Our emotions can come from a variety of places, past experiences, current situations, our body’s physical responses. Regardless, our feelings are always real. They just may not be “true.”
4. Soothe hurt emotions by placing a hand over your body where you feel this experience. Breathe softly into this area. Envision warm, compassionate energy flowing from your heart, through your hand, into the area you are touching with your hand. Allow yourself to receive this nurturing energy.
5. Identify your needs. What is this emotion communicating to you about what you need? Ask yourself, “What action do I feel compelled to take?” “What might be helpful?” It might be that nothing needs to be done or the emotion may be letting us know something. Our primary emotions have messaging functions to let us know what is needed. For example, primary anger is about protection, fear is to alert you of danger, sadness is to let go of something, and disgust is to move away from something. Other needs might include soothing, compassion, rest, fun, joy, support, or comfort. Identify your need so it’s not left unmet and then filled up with food.
The next time you have a strong craving for something, see if you can identify what may have triggered it. Is it a particular time of day, if this occurs regularly it can indicate a chemistry imbalance. It could also indicate mood if this is a time of day when you’re often lonely, for example. What are the circumstances prior? When was the last time you ate? Could you have been tired?
Get Help for Emotional Eating
If you feel that some of your eating may be triggered by factors other than hunger, a therapist can help you identify factors that might be contributing. It’s important to take a whole-person approach to understanding your cravings and triggers as they can come from many different sources. Eddins Counseling Group can help you with that. We understand many of the contributing factors and get the emotional frustration and pain it can cause. We offer individual therapy for emotional eating as well as a 12-week group program. Don’t wait another day, there is another way!