Rethink Emotional Eating
Cultivating Mindful Emotional Eating Partnerships
I’d like to once again tackle the most provocative concept from “Eating the Moment” self-help program, that of mindful emotional eating. I have received a good bit of correspondence regarding this harm-reduction, moderation-focused, Middle Way approach to dealing with emotional eating. Most folks who wrote me about this concept shared that they were intrigued by the self-acceptance and the compassion of this idea but they were a bit afraid of abusing the strategy. This fear is normal. You see, the flip side of freedom is responsibility. Most overeaters don’t trust themselves. Which is why they tend to overeat. Mindful emotional eating is an attempt to change that. It’s an opportunity to set precedents of self-trust.
Another theme that stood out for me from the correspondence with the readers is that there is a lot of very toxic guilt about the idea of emotional eating. And guilt about emotional eating, as you probably have figured out, leads to more emotional eating. The current approach offers a guilt-free way to leverage more coping per calorie by making emotional eating more mindful and more effective as a coping strategy. So, read on. More specifically, what I’d like to do in this post is to , first, offer you an overview of the concept of mindful emotional eating, and, then, some assistance in cultivating mindful emotional eating partnerships.
EMOTIONAL EATING ISN’T A PROBLEM, MINDLESS EMOTIONAL EATING IS
As you might recall from the “Eating the Moment” self-help program for overcoming overeating, there are 3 reasons we eat: just because, mindlessly; to satisfy biological/physiological hunger; and to change how we feel/for emotional reasons. Emotional eating is extremely common. In fact, it is pretty much hard-wired into our eating culture. Take the concept of dessert, for example. What is dessert? Dessert is something yummy, tasty. Does your body need dessert? Of course, not. So, why do we eat desserts? Because we want to enjoy the taste of what we are eating. That’s an emotional reason. Dessert is for the mind, not for the body. Same goes for any kind of taste-focused cooking. As a culture, we spend endless hours pursuing various gustatory highlights. Why? Once again, because we want to enjoy what we are eating. That’s emotional eating. Why? Because your body doesn’t really need for the food to taste good. What your body needs is the right amount of food and a certain combination of nutritional value. Our obsession with the taste of food is nothing other than an attempt to kill two birds with one stone: to fill up our stomach and to caress the palate of your sensation-seeking mind. Nothing’s wrong with that! Let cosmonauts eat spam! The point I am making is that emotional eating is pretty much hard-wired into all of our eating. If you want for your food to have a nice taste, let alone if you want a dessert, you are looking at food to satisfy your emotional desires for pleasures. Once again: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
Now, you might say: “Hold it, Pavel, you are missing the point! Emotional eating isn’t just eating dessert, it’s when we eat to cope with stress, anxiety, and all kinds of ego wounds that we sustain in the course of our day-to-day friction with life.” You are right. That too is emotional eating. That is exactly how we usually think of emotional eating: eating to cope. But what is coping? Coping is when you make a conscious choice to do something to change how you feel. Pleasure-focused eating that I described above (like when you want to eat food with good taste or when you want a dessert) takes you from feeling okay to feeling some slight enjoyment from yummy food. Coping-focused eating takes you from feeling bad to feeling okay. Sure, these two kinds of eating kick into action at different levels of emotions but the principle remains the same: both (normal, pleasure-focused eating) and coping-focused (emotional self-regulation) eating are ways of using food to change how we feel/to change our emotions. So, here’s the party-line: emotional eating is not the problem, it’s the emotional overeating that is a problem. Put differently: mindful emotional eating is not a problem, but mindless emotional eating is.
THERE ARE VERY GOOD REASONS WHY EMOTIONAL EATING (EATING TO COPE) WORKS
Did you know that the mere fact of touching your lips can stimulate the PNS (the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your body that is responsible for relaxation)? Rick Hanson, Ph.D. & Richard Mendius, M.D. note that “touching your lips can also bring up soothing associations of eating or even breastfeeding when you were a baby” (2008, p. 82). Eating (not overeating) as a coping response to stress makes good behavioral and physiological sense. Let’s take a closer look.
Eating As a Parasympathetic Activity
From the physiological perspective, a choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to directly manipulate the nervous system, by switching on the part of our wiring that is associated with relaxation and rest. You see, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) of your body consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is activated during stress and prepares the body for flight or fight, and of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that is responsible for conservation of energy and rest. A choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to turn on the PNS. While eating has been associated with increases in PNS activity (Uijtdehaage, Stern, and Koch, 1992), the mere act of mindless eating in and of itself is unlikely to turn on the PNS when you are stressed. But mindful, conscious eating might: smell and taste your food to assure maximally prompt activation of the parasympathetic relaxation response.
Eating as a Learned Form of Coping with Stress
Here’s some irony for you: while we’ve been socialized to cope with stress by eating, reactive eating enjoys no social sanction. From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier (in all its oral symbolism) has been our first coping tool. To confuse matters further with another hypocrisy, let us note that many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring. So then, why is it that it is okay to show your care for others by feeding them, but self-feeding is not an acceptable form of self-care?! Finally, we keep downloading psychological software of dinner time as being family time from one generation to another, conditioning ourselves to see eating as a family ritual, as a time of togetherness, as an opportunity for social relating and belonging, as a means to emotional well-being. Give yourself permission to eat to cope! Don’t worry: it’s the lack of permission that turns emotional eating into emotional overeating.
Eating as a Grounding Ritual
Eating is a ritual, and as such it is comforting in its predictability. Also, eating is a sensation-rich, unambiguously physical activity. As such, eating is an effective reality check at a time of uncertainty or confusion, a behavior that grounds and centers a suffering mind. Therefore, to maximize the coping usefulness of emotional eating, we have to make emotional eating more ritualized, more systematic, with clear start and end points.
5 PRINCIPLES OF MINDFUL EMOTIONAL EATING
You have two options in regard to emotional eating: you can try to eliminate it altogether or you can try to make better use of it by making emotional eating more conscious. The latter would be consistent with the goals of harm reduction, a humanistic form of psychotherapy that offers a pragmatic risk-reduction approach to managing problematic behaviors (Marlatt, 2002).
The following five principles will help you transition from mindlessly-reactive emotional eating to mindfully-conscious emotional eating in moderation:
When eating to cope with emotions, accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure;
When eating to cope, first activate the parasympathetic response through relaxation;
When eating to cope, whenever possible, try to do so in company, not in hiding;
When eating to cope with emotions alone, follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear start and end points;
When eating to cope with emotions, remember that emotional eating does not have to mean emotional overeating.
Following these guidelines will help you approach emotional eating with a sense of control.
AM I ENABLING YOU? I HOPE SO!
I would like to en-able your ability to cope without being perfectionistic about your coping choices. I’d like to en-able your ability to cope with compassion for your coping choices. I’d like to en-able your ability to cope with a sense of moderation and balance. You see, the word “enabling” has gotten an unnecessarily bad reputation.
The verb to enable literally means to leverage an ability, to endow a capacity, to empower. It’s not the process of enabling that is a problem, it’s what we enable that may be problematic. I am not enabling you to overeat. I am trying to enable you to cope responsibly. Mindful emotional eating – as I have noted previously – doesn’t have to mean emotional over-eating. If you came home after a long day and you are stressed out of your mind, and all you want to do is to kick back, have a cup of tea and a cookie, and chill, why shouldn’t you be able to do exactly that? You might say: I should be able to cope without eating. Ok. When you are able to cope without eating, then do.
But what about now? What about this moment when you feel totally fried? What are you going to do for self-care now? Once again, you might say: I should get on a treadmill, work the stress off, or meditate my way through this. Great. If you can, then do. But what if you are too zapped for all this ideal coping? What then? How are going to take care of yourself then? Once again, you might say: well, I should just tough it out, white-knuckle my way through it. Nonsense! Why should you white-knuckle your way through it? Why shouldn’t you take this simple step of controlled self-indulgence? Why is it that you can’t allow yourself this simple coping short-cut? You might say: because I don’t trust myself to stop; I know that if I start, I won’t be able to stop. Exactly! That’s exactly what I am trying to help you learn to do. That’s is exactly the ability that I am trying to en-able with mindful emotional eating.
I’d like for you to learn to take an occasional coping short-cut without getting totally lost in some “I blew it/I might as well go all the way” emotional eating binge. If you don’t allow yourself to now and then experiment with mindful, responsible, middle-way, self-accepting, moderation-style emotional eating, then how will you ever develop this ability? I know it’s a bit scary. I know you struggle to trust yourself with food. Yes, it’s scary. And I’d like to enable you to stop fearing food and to use it as an occasional tool – as one of many in your coping repertoire – with moderation.
MINDFUL EMOTIONAL EATING PREREQUISITE SKILLS
So, here’s what you need to dry mindful emotional eating:
– existential courage/open mind/self-acceptance
– good craving control skills
– mindful emotional eating partnership.
MINDFUL EMOTIONAL EATING PARTNERSHIPS
Steps to cultivate mindful emotional eating support:
1. Share this moderation-focused self-help platform with a significant other that you feel comfortable being vulnerable with.
2. Discuss with him/her the idea behind mindful emotional eating, get on the same page.
3. Do a hypothetical dress-rehearsal/run scenarios/talk through how it’d work (see text below for tips)
4. Explicitly address the issue of personal responsibility to prevent any concerns about enabling and/or caregiver guilt.
5. Discuss frequency/rules of engagement/any applicable boundaries.
6. Agree to pilot this mindful emotional partnership for no longer than three months and plan to formally re-assess how it’s working.
7. Re-assess the success of the partnership, exchange feedback, modify, if necessary, the rules of engagement and/or gracefully dissolve the partnership.
Emotional eating doesn’t have to be a dirty little secret. When feeling emotional upset and considering emotional eating as a coping intervention, try to find a supportive companion (your mindful eating partner or a non-judgmental significant other). Whether in person or by phone, let such a person know of what you are trying to do. Tell them that you are upset, that you’d like to talk about it… over food. Show them your cards, explain that while you are not exactly hungry, you’d like to supplement comfort food with the comfort of supportive company. If your significant other (partner, friend) isn’t exactly interested in eating with you, that’s okay, as long as they are willing to just sit with you, without judgment, as you take your time to snack a bit. Explain that you are not necessarily looking for therapy or advice, just for someone to be with you, to “process” what’s going on. Clarify that you are not looking for them to solve your problems. Tip: before sitting down with your friend, think about whether or not you want your friend to help you not to overeat. Clarify to your friend to what extent you want them to be involved in monitoring your food intake. Thank them for being with you.
If you find yourself on the other side of this intervention, in the role of support, do your best to avoid being judgmental of emotional eating. If you feel that the emotional eating episode is gradually becoming an episode of emotional overeating, remind yourself that you are not responsible for the other’s eating behavior. Remember that your presence at the coping table is not a permission to overeat or enabling but a generous offer of support. Tip: before agreeing to sit with your friend ask him or her if they want you to help them slow down and not overeat. Ask: “Hey, I’d love to be there with you as you take care of yourself… Do you want me to encourage you to slow down a bit and remind you to not overdo?” If yes, then do. If no, then just be there for them, with them, without judgment. This kind of role induction can help both of you avoid any awkwardness.
That’s it. There is sure a lot of work ahead if you want to try this strategy. The upside is that you stand to learn how to leverage more coping per calorie using a physiologically powerful coping strategy of emotional eating. Once again, this is not a permission to go binge to cope, but an invitation to make your emotional eating more mindful. If food is chicken soup for the mind, then remember to mindfully calibrate the dose of your self-help!
Additional Mindful Eating Resources:
Somov, P. (2011). Rethink Emotional Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 5, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindful-living/2009/12/guilt-free-emotional-eating/