Friday, April 4, 2014

How to stop using food, eating, or not eating to cope with your emotions

It is possible to stop using food to cope with your emotions.  But before I talk about how to do that, I want to first lay some groundwork.

Food is nourishing in more ways than just physical.  Food can be intellectually nourishing, spiritually nourishing, and emotionally nourishing.

We can’t forget that eating is, or can be, an emotional experience.  It can be nostalgic in the way that you remember your childhood when eating certain foods.  It can be comforting when you have a nice, hot bowl of soup on a cold, blustery day.  It can be fun and happy when you’re at the movies with popcorn and jujy-fruits.

It is impossible to completely separate your emotions from food.  If you try to do so, you will only end up grumpy, cynical, and, to speak plainly, no fun to be around.

If you find that you are constantly turning to food (or restricting your food intake) in order to cope with every strong emotion, you might want to reexamine your relationship with food.

The goal should be to have an appropriate relationship with food.  Eating has an important place in life, and it is not just to keep you alive.  However, if you find that you have an inordinate view of food, if it’s taking up too much space in your life, or if it doesn’t have enough space, then you could benefit from these tips below.

Become self-aware.  The first step in all types of healing is to become aware of your habits, inclinations, and reactions.  It could be helpful to keep a diary for a few weeks while you are trying to evaluate your eating habits.  First, write down your emotions, what’s going on in your life, how you feel, etc.  Then write down what you did, or are going to do, to help you deal with those emotions.  Look back on the week and see if you notice any patterns.

Educate yourself of what an eating disorder is.  You may find some concerning behaviors while you are doing your self-examination.  If you can see correlations to anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, then you should seek professional help, or at least counseling.

If you don’t think you have an eating disorder, or you are not yet ready to get professional help, then acknowledge how you are treating yourself.  Be honest with yourself and your habits.  Get rid of the denial.  Look your faults in the face and bring them into the light.  You will see that they are not as scary as they were when they were lurking in the shadows.

Get rid of the rules.  You might have been living by a certain set of rules or expectations that you’ve imposed on yourself.  Think about these rules and evaluate whether or not they should stick around.  Things like, “Carbs are bad. I have to eat dessert last. A Pop-tart is not a good breakfast. I’m a bad person if I eat sugar. I can only eat 11 chips because that’s what the box says.”  Most people who struggle to have a good relationship with food also struggle to keep up with the regulations they’ve put on themselves.  It only promotes a vicious cycle.  If you can’t keep up with your ridiculous rules, you feel like a failure.  That strong emotion can trigger one to continue to turn toward food to help them feel better.

Give yourself permission to have a healthy relationship with food.  Give yourself permission to eat when you are hungry and to stop when you are full.  Allow yourself the option to leave food on your plate, throw it away, or save it in the fridge for later.  Or allow yourself to eat a little more because it was really good or because you’re not quite full, no matter what the serving size says.  Allow yourself to eat today with the knowledge that you are allowed to eat tomorrow too.  And most importantly, give yourself permission to feel.  It is OK to have emotions.  It is OK to cry, feel mad, feel hurt, or feel happy.  You are allowed to have ups and downs – it doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Listen to your needs.  Once you recognize that you are using food to cope with your emotions, pay attention to the emotions you are experiencing.  If you are sad, try to understand what made you sad and figure out what could possibly help.  For example, if you are angry with a friend after an argument, don’t react right away, allow yourself to experience that emotion for a short time.  Then, think of ways to help you cope with the emotion.  Maybe taking a walk to think of how to resolve it or calling her to say what you’re feeling.  If you use eating, or not eating, to deal with all your emotions, you are neglecting your true needs.  If you take time to think about your real needs, you will make better choices.  And if you take care of your needs, you will be less likely to compensate with food.

Take care of yourself without guilt.  Seriously and honestly, take care of yourself.  After you figure out your needs, give yourself permission to follow through.  Remember, you cannot give what you don’t have.  You will be a better person if you take care of your needs first.  It is not selfish, self-centered, or un-saintly to take care of yourself.  Remember that post about being a reservoir?  Of course there will be times that you can’t.  It’s not a perfect world.  But, if you make taking care of yourself a priority, you will notice a huge change for the better.

Employ other effective coping skills.  When I was first trying to figure out my needs, the coping skill I used the most was talking.  I needed to talk a lot.  I had a lot of counseling sessions.  I spoke with my husband about anything and everything that was bothering me.  I told him about all my food problems, anxiety, depression, and social insecurities.  Over time, I could trust him to help me and keep me accountable.  I also began to talk to other friends and family members.  Even if I didn’t solve anything, the human interaction brought me out of my own little pity party.  If I couldn’t talk to anyone, I would write a blog post.  I figured out that what I really needed what to express myself instead of keeping things all bottled up inside.  Besides the depression and the eating disorder, I also realized that I had a lot of anxiety, so I needed to address that as well.  Sometimes, I would use relaxation techniques or audio mediation clips to help me calm down, especially at night.  Everyone is different.  Figure out what you really need and find something that helps you.  And remember, it will take practice – a lot of practice and patience.

Post reminders where you can see them.  The positive reinforcement can help you get through the tough times, especially if you are home alone.  Carry encouraging quotes in your pocket or purse.  Put up your favorite lines on the refrigerator.  “You are worth it. Feelings are not facts. You don’t have to earn the right to eat. You are beautiful. You are loved. It’s OK to take care of yourself. You are not just your body – you are also mind, spirit, and soul. No one has power over you. You are strong. You are more than what you believe about yourself.”

Be compassionate with yourself.  Talk to yourself positively.  Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes.  Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend.  Remember, you are human and you are not perfect.  Yet, despite it all, God still loves you and wants you to be happy.  It might take a long time to change some habits, but it’s worth it, it’s possible, and you deserve it.

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