The last post in this series focused on identifying triggers that get in the way of starting or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. One type of trigger that is particularly relevant for most people is the emotional trigger. We can eat because we are happy or because we are sad. Whether positive or negative, emotions influence our behavior and can become an important hurdle to overcome when changing your lifestyle.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach that helps people to identify how their thoughts, feelings and behaviors influence one another, which makes this type of psychotherapy a great fit for identifying and working with emotional triggers. In this blog, we will explore how to dig deeper into your emotional responses to understand how your feelings are influencing your attempts to change your eating and exercising behaviors. We will also explore ways to change your emotional response in ways that do not interfere with developing new healthy habits.
Identifying Emotional Triggers
We will begin be identifying the steps for understanding how your feelings may influence your behaviors (adapted from Laliberte, McCabe & Taylor, 2009):
Describe the situation
The first goal in the process is to give a brief overview of the situation that you will be examining. The situation could be internal (ie. thought about, remembered, felt as a bodily sensation etc.) or external (something that happened).
For example, Joe gets a message from his boss that he needs to go to an unexpected meeting out of town in two days.
2. Examine your interpretation
The interpretation describes the way that you view the event. It is often expressed in thoughts about what is happening.
Joe could interpret the event as an opportunity to show his boss that he can handle the meeting. He could also see it a different way be thinking, “I am now going to miss out on time with my friends over the next two days while I go on this trip.”
3. Note your body’s response
The emotion you feel can be experienced as strong sensations in the body. This experience can increase your emotional experience.
Joe could experience a feeling of energy and lightness as he thinks about heading out-of-town for the trip or he could experience a feeling of tension set into his muscles and a sick feeling in his stomach.
4. Identify your emotions
It is important to identify how you are feeling. The emotion is a response to the interpretation and the bodily response. If you find that you have difficulty naming your feelings, follow this link (http://www.rowancenterla.com/new-blog/2015/9/16/feelings-part-2-identifying-feelings) to a list of emotions that can help you. Once you identify the emotion, you will rate it on a scale from 0-10 (with 10 being the strongest you have ever felt that emotion).
Joe may feeling happy and excited or he could also feel disappointed and angry.
5. Describe your behavioral response
Your emotions and bodily sensations then influence how you act in a given situation. In turn, your behaviors and change or intensify your emotional experience.
Joe may begin to make plans for how he is going to tackle the meeting. On the other hand, he could also sulk and find the closest pint of ice cream to eat while he thinks about how upset he is about the trip.
As you can see, in each instance there are different possibilities available for how an event is interpreted. The event itself is the same, but how we react to the event can change drastically. So knowing what to do when you have a negative reaction is important in figuring out how to tackle the negative emotions and behaviors to help you stay the course of change you are trying to navigate.
Changing Your Thoughts and Behaviors
Once you have identified how you are feeling and behaving, you have the opportunity to do things different. Here are some ways to begin to change course (adapted from Laliberte, McCabe & Taylor, 2009):
Challenge your thinking
One powerful tool in dealing with unhelpful thoughts is to challenge them. You can do this by weighing the evidence for and against these thoughts. Once you weigh the evidence you can change your thoughts to a more balanced thought that accurately reflects the facts of situation and can determine a plan for what to do next.
For example, Joe began to focus on missing time with friends, which caused him to feel angry. In examining his thoughts he discovered:
Evidence for: I will miss a dinner that I had planned on one of the nights I am scheduled to be gone.
Evidence against: I did not have any other plans for the days I am set to be gone. Nothing that I was planning to do couldn’t be changed.
Balanced Thought: I am disappointed about having to change my plans but they can be adjusted.
Action Plan: I will call my friend and reschedule our dinner for next week.
2. Wait it out
While emotions are often very strong in the beginning, you can think of them like waves. They crash over you and then recede. This means that if you can distract yourself and give yourself some time, these emotions are likely to begin to dissipate. For many, it is often helpful to change scenery to give you a chance to change your emotional intensity.
3. View your emotion as a message
It can help to take the perspective that your strong emotional experience is a sign to you that something is going on that you need to pay attention to. Rather than burying the emotion with less that helpful behaviors such as eating, try to spend some time thinking about how you feel and how you may want to handle the situation differently.
4. Find ways to ease your agitation
For some people, eating is a way to ease feelings of uneasiness or agitation. If you know that you are someone who struggles with eating when you feel strong emotions, it can help to plan ahead and think of ways to help discharge those emotions without eating. Physical activity such as walking, running, biking, or swimming can be helpful. It can also help to channel that energy into another task such as cleaning or organizing around the house or office. Changing your physical sensations can also be helpful. You can change the temperature by snuggling up under a blanket or taking a hot shower or you can listen to loud music or a relaxation exercise.
5. Find news ways to comfort yourself
Many people eat when they feel negative emotions as a way to gain comfort. Again, it can be very helpful to plan ahead and think about ways to find comfort when you need it. Looks for activities, sounds, smells or sights that are comforting. Things like candles, a warm bath, a favorite tune, a chat with a friend or a cuddle with your pet can all be new ways to handle stress.
6. Avoid eating out of boredom
It is very common for people to eat simply because they have nothing else to do or they are trying to avoid doing something. It can be very useful to begin to add in new activities when you are trying to make a lifestyle change. You may want to join a club or take a class. You can read, volunteer or develop a new hobby. Again, physical activity such as walking or just getting away from the kitchen when bored can also be helpful.
7. Find a new reward system
Too often food becomes a reward for things we do in our day-to-day life. We may give ourselves permission to eat ice cream when we finish a task or you may get a burger after a workout. These habits can lead to excess eating and an association between food a reward that can undermine your goals. Instead, try to think of new rewards such as taking yourself somewhere, getting a new outfit, putting money toward a vacation, or getting a massage or facial.
Thinking and behaving in new ways allows you to begin to break old habits and gives you the tools for success in your goals. Good luck!
Dr. Stephanie Davidson is a licensed, clinical health psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine specializing in the use of cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and existential approaches to treat patients with a range of medical and mental health challenges. She has a strong interest in mindfulness-based interventions to heal the body and mind. Her focus is on collaboration with the goal of assisting patients in adjusting to difficult experiences and achieving a greater sense of well-being, balance and peace in their lives.
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email