Sunday, 10 January 2016

Emotional Eating 101

It always seems to me that the first week of January is a tough one.  The excitement (whether it was deserved or not) of Christmas and New Year is over, you're going back to work, the bills of Christmas are looming, there's no holiday for the foreseeable future, and most people seem to be making themselves miserable with unrealistic resolutions.  It's no wonder we want to curl up in a ball and rock ourselves gently in the corner until the warmer weather comes back.

For me, January has been the start of a new job, which kind of spices things up a bit - something new to get my teeth into rather than going back to existing problems and a pile of unanswered emails.  So that's cool.

I've also been very careful not to go crazy over the festive period this year, and I made it more about a time of restfulness and looking after myself than the traditional time of excess. That's definitely helped cut back on that Christmas Hangover feeling - I don't feel so exhausted that I'll never make it through January alive and I don't feel about a stone heavier and bloated with all the Christmas food and drink.

I've also set myself reasonable resolutions and challenges, designed to make me feel better about myself, not worse.  I've cut out alcohol for most of January, as well as takeaway, but I'm not particularly missing either of them right now and know that I'll feel better for it.  I'm running again, which is hard, but always makes me feel a bit like a ninja warrior when I'm done - the battle is all in getting myself out the door in the first place, and not talking myself into thinking I can't do it before I've even put foot to pavement.  And I'm continuing to read lots around emotional eating, self-compassion and mindfulness.

Which brings me to today's topic.  Emotional eating.  A phrase that I've thrown around my whole adulthood, but without really know what it means.

As an adult, I've constantly been aware of, and struggled with, my weight.  I did Weightwatchers in my gap year, aged 19 - it didn't work for me at the time.  At university I piled on weight in my first term.  Then I battled to lose it again during the rest of my time there.  I think I tried Rosemary Conley for a while.  I played sports for the uni and kept active.  I ended up losing most of it during a particularly vicious bout of Norovirus.

After graduating I moved very quickly to a job in London, and ended up living in a hotel for a month because I didn't have a home down there yet.  Again, I piled on weight in that month.  Then I spent the next two years trying to lose it.  Are you seeing a pattern here yet?  Every time I was in a new and stressful environment I ate way too much to comfort myself and ended up putting on weight and adding an extra stress to the pile I already had.

After those two years, I moved back to my parents' home, as my mother was ill and I wanted to be closer to family and I was so over the London thing.  I lost a bit of weight, but not much - perhaps half a stone.  I was still constantly fighting with myself over it - struggling, obsessing, but not really getting anywhere.  Two years after that, and following my mother passing away, I moved out into a flat near my Dad's, and it took another two years after that before I came back to Weightwatchers again.  That time it worked.  I lost 4 stone in less than a year.  Then I started struggling again - I've never put it all back on, in fact I've never put more than 2 stone of it back on, but I've bounced around that 2 stone bracket, struggling to get back down to that 4 stone loss, and to finish losing weight and have the battle ended.

I've just wanted to get to the place where I'm at a healthy weight and at peace with food.

And I never got there.

Sometime in September something clicked, and for some reason I started researching emotional eating.  Turns out it's not just a phrase, but an actual clinical thing.  In psychiatric terms, it's called a maladaptive behaviour, and knowing that really helped me.  I wasn't just weak of will-power and useless, I had developed a recognised pattern of behaviour to deal with life - and if it's recognised, then there's ways of changing it.

A maladaptive behaviour is basically receiving a stimulus and translating it into a different response than the one a "normal" brain would use.  With emotional eating, that means feeling sad, or bored, or frustrated, and instead of processing that feeling in a useful way, the brain translates that into a hunger (emotional instead of physical) and causes the body to go in search of food.  Why?  Because eating distracts from the original stimulus.  The brain has forgotten, or found an easier way, of dealing with an unpleasant emotion.

Effectively, the body has developed a reliance on food in an emotional capacity.  An addiction.  Not dissimilar to any addiction to alcohol, tobacco or drugs.  Yep.  Really.

That's an eye-opener isn't it?

But like an addiction, there are therapies and oodles of information out there on dealing with it.  One thing I've quickly discovered though is that in facing emotional eating, you have to be open to the fact that you have it and actively want to deal with it.  I've realised this both through reading reviews of all the books I've been looking at, and also in speaking to my own friends, which has been a shock.

To me, it's been an amazing revelation - I don't want to diet for the rest of my life, I want to find balance in a natural way, and the more I read on emotional eating, the more it makes perfect sense that I use food in a screwed up way.  But talking to my friends about it, they say "of course I'm emotional eater, I eat when I'm bored, but I'm totally not addicted to food, and I'll just go on a diet to lose weight" which is completely missing the point.  I've learned pretty quickly that where I could talk to friends about losing weight via Weightwatchers, and they were either totally supportive, or ready to jump on board with me and lose some too, now I'm delving into the deeper meaning of why I overeat in the first place .... tumbleweeds.  Either they're not ready to admit what they're doing or they're not ready to step outside of the comfort zone yet.

Which is cool, because me and my journal are exploring it quite happily on our own.

Some things have been super-quick to resolve.  Others not so much.

I've already read a couple of really cool books - Shrink Yourself by Roger Gould (hate the name of the book, loved the contents) was genuinely revelatory.  I read it like "yes, yes, yes - this is ME!".  Half the book is explanatory and then the 2nd half is related exercises for the reader to do themselves. I worked through all the exercises, some of which were quite painful as I had to go through and recognise all my crappy sentiments about myself before I could address them, but it's definitely been a helpful process.  Just reading that book I banished one of my cravings straightaway for good, as I found that my attachment to Chinese food and frequent craving for it is related to trying to recreate feelings of happiness and celebration from my childhood.  Now I've made the link, I realised that I can actually access those same feelings and memories any time I want, and the need for the accompanying food as completely vanished.  That happened to be a standalone behaviour which has been easy to resolve, and a lot of the other behaviours aren't as simple but I'm working on them.

I also read What Are You Really Hungry For? by Deepak Chopra, which went a bit too spiritual for me, but still had some really interesting points, concepts and techniques in.  Techniques like how to slow down your response to food cravings and how to work out alternatives responses that work as well, if not better, and are more appropriate than eating.

Because that's what curing emotional eating all comes down to:  intercepting the cue to eat, assessing whether it's a genuine physical hunger or emotional, and if it's emotional tracing back to what you're actually feeling and allowing it.  Embracing it.  And if it's frustration, figuring out how to remove that mental block and make yourself happier.

It's slow, tiring and so worth while.

So yeah - that's what I'm doing at the moment.  I'm still on Weightwatchers because it gives me a useful guide as to how my eating is going as a whole.  I have a new Fitbit to encourage me to move a bit more.  And I'm doing a lot of reading, thinking and journaling to unravel all my emotional eating cues, and to either accept and embrace them when I'm feeling crappy for some reason and find a better way than food to feel better, or to turn those frustrations into positive actions to make my life better.

2016 feels like it'll be a good one!


Seren said...

I'll definitely check out that Shrink Yourself - I'm sure I've heard good things about it elsewhere as well.

My big problem at the moment is that I think that my relationship with food is much better but I'm not at a healthy weight. If I "diet", even just following WW which I know very well and which can allow me relative freedom, I start to get twitchy. I don't want to encourage myself to get back into less ordered (is that the opposite of disordered?) eating habits, but equally, I need to shift some weight and the only way to do that is to find a way to create a calorie deficit.

Like you - lots of pondering so far this year and am finding journaling helpful as well. Good luck to both of us!


starfish264 said...

Hi Seren,

It's a really interesting point you make, and one I had stumbled across myself. When I try and diet, I immediately feel restricted and deprived. What usually happens is I go over-board compensating for it or rebounding. I'd seen the pattern emerging for a while on my Weightwatchers where I'd end up (mildly) binging on the weekend and (mildly) restricting during the week to make it up. It was never massively extreme but still not a healthy and normal pattern to get into.

When I started journalling, I kept bumping into this fear of deprivation when I thought about taking all my food away and eating normally, i.e. how a (naturally) non-overweight person eats. What I found interesting when I started reading the books was that the deprivation fear is actually part of your emotional eating - the subconscious brain reacts badly to the thought of its comfort blanket being taken away and causes us to rebound - god forbid that we should have to feel negative emotions and have to deal with them the normal way.

As I've gone further along my journey through the process of addressing it, I've discovered that as I've started dealing with what I feel, the deprivation fear has disappeared. I eat very consciously now - both in terms of being sure that it's physical hunger I'm feeling, and the actual act of eating - no distractions so I can't disappear into the food bubble of mindless eating (another symptom of emotional eating apparently) and no guilt - if I want something I have it and I savour it.

One thing I didn't realise for a while: when I first started reading up on the emotional eating, I thought that it would set me free to eat whatever I wanted, whenever without thinking about it and I wouldn't need to diet. That's both true and false. It does set you free to eat whatever you want, but you still need to eat less / have a bit of a conscious plan to lose the excess weight - what it does do though is free you from the baggage and deprivation fears and all the other stuff, so that you can make clear, logical food choices without rebounding all over the shop - now I've realised that I'm making slightly steadier progress I think, and that's why I've chosen to stay with Weightwatchers.

Where I'm still personally struggling is eating in company - that one's going to take a bit longer to crack!

Hope that's a bit insightful! x

Seren said...

That's very interesting yes - I really relate to the fear of deprivation thing. Or rather, my subconscious definitely does, no matter how many times I tell myself that I can eat or drink whatever I want as long as I account for it. I think many years of dieting have just ingrained a mindset that I need to shake off.

Really hope you blog more about this - it's fascinating and very helpful.


Peridot said...

Really interesting post, thanks. Hopefully more of the journal will end up here too.