I don't think I have ever met anyone who hasn't used some type of substance "take the edge off". Whether it's having a glass of wine the size of a human head, smoking a joint or several, or eating comfort foods until you fall asleep in a food coma, we all are likely to have used some type mechanism to escape the pain of the moment. Indulging in any of these behaviors on very rare occasions may not hurt if all else is done in a healthy way, but we start down a slippery slope when we use substances to dull the emotion we aren't allowing ourselves to feel.
Pain is awful, and chronic pain whether it's physical or emotional, is almost unbearable at times. When we lose a loved one or we discover our body is betraying us by developing a disease or disorder that will alter our lives forever in a significant way, or we find a loved one is betraying our trust and love, it's hard to look that pain in the eye and confront it head on. But the alternative to that is to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms that only temporarily mask the pain but they don't address the underlying grief that will rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times. Trust me, that has been my story more times than I care to count.
So what do we do to deal with such strong emotion that we are terrified to confront? Certainly numbing the pain is a temporary bandaid but eventually that pain will bleed through and no amount of chocolate will stop the hemorrhage of emotion that is bound to flow forth.
Because nutrition and lifestyle is my jam (see how cool I can be?) I'll focus here on emotional eating rather than the abuse of other substances. You don't need to be completely distraught to use food as a numbing agent. You might be responding to a particularly stressful situation that is temporary but still nerve-wracking.
When you turn to food for comfort, you may temporarily feel better because the rush of dopamine that floods your brain from eating something that tastes good. But that good feeling is fleeting and soon you will feel worse than you did before eating it. Going back for more food, you will likely discover that you need more and more to regain that false feeling of well-being you found when you first started down the path of eating comfort food. And you haven't addressed the underlying problem that caused you to eat the food in the first place. By avoiding the problem, you cause yourself more stress and anxiety and then it piles on because you feel badly about eating the food that you just consumed. It becomes a downward spiral into the abyss of overeating/feeling guilty/feeling sick/ getting more anxious/eating more and so on. This is when we find ourselves in trouble.
If you find yourself in a situation where you want to make questionable food choices, here are some strategies to help you through:
- Assess whether what you are feeling is true hunger or a reaction to what is happening around you - If you are truly hungry, then a healthy choice is likely to be able to satisfy your hunger. Look for a healthy snack to stave off that empty feeling. If that doesn't appeal to you, it's likely you aren't physically hungry but rather emotionally depleted.
- Try to step away from the situation you find yourself in that is causing the stress - Get away and pause to take some slow deep breaths. Take a walk. Write your thoughts, feelings, frustrations, in a journal or a letter to the person who might be at the center of the turmoil. You don't have to ever give that person your letter but the mere act of writing it all act diminishes the power it/they have over you.
- Distract yourself with a mindless task - Do the laundry. Straighten up a room. It's been said that if you organize up your external environment, you can gain some clarity in your internal environment (i.e. get out of your head).
- Meditate - I love the feeling of meditation when you really get into it. You don't have to be a master meditator to enjoy the benefits. Just sit quietly alone and do some measured deep breathing. Focus only on your breath and when a stray thought wanders into your consciousness, simply dismiss it and carry on with your breathing exercise.
- Exercise - You can release some "feel good" hormones by getting your sweat on. Do some strenuous exercise to use up some of that nervous energy. Really tire yourself out if you are physically able to do so. If you are limited in your ability to exercise strenuously, try some gentle yoga poses. These can be done on the floor or in a chair and are available at different levels of ability. Plenty of Youtube videos can help with that.
These are a few strategies to use to replace emotional eating. Most of my clients find themselves in this situation at some times in their lives. I help them to develop the healthy coping skills to make better choices in their response to stressful life events. You can't avoid the stress but you can control how you respond to it. Take control today.
As a health coach, I work with women who are facing serious health challenges like heart disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes or who have been diagnosed as having a precursor to a serious health issue such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar. I help them make food and lifestyle changes so they can get healthy, live longer and enjoy a fuller, happier, more energetic life. If you would like to have a free consultation about the health challenges you have and the improvements you would like to see in your health, click here to schedule a no strings attached call.