Coping with Emotions Without Using Food (whether that be Restricting, Emotional Eating or Not Eating, Overexercising, or Binge Eating)
Coping with emotions without using food (whether that be restricting, emotional eating or not eating, overexercising, or binge eating) is a freeing skill to learn and practice. Because when we don’t have ways to cope with our emotions without using food that are aligned with our values and that feel nurturing, we can feel lost and controlled by our emotions. And, if we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, or more importantly, express them or give voice to them in an appropriate way, then we may use food or exercise to cope. Which, please know, really isn’t as bad as you may think it is or have been led to believe. I mean, thank goodness you had food (or exercise) as a way to cope! What would you have done without those things to get through what you’ve had to go through? Now, it just means it’s time to learn some new skills, even if those skills are as simple as learning to be with your feelings and validating that your feelings are indeed, valid.
When it comes to our feelings, It’s very common in our culture to stay busy. To never allow ourselves a down moment. But, constant busyness is a distraction and can cause us (intentionally or unintentionally) to avoid what in our life really needs attention. Food or exercise can be used in the same way as busyness, as a way to cope. What both of these things have in common is that they keep us from being with ourselves, tapping into our inner-worlds, and you may have guessed it, feeling our feelings.
Without developing skills to be with our emotions and to make friends with our feelings, our emotions will come out in one way or another, whether we like how they’re presenting themselves or not. So, the intention is not to make our feelings go away or to get mad at yourself for having an “emotional eating” problem (it’s likely more of a self-care problem). Rather, it’s to learn how to work with and be with your feelings and to respond to them in an appropriate manner. With this shared, here are some questions that may be helpful for you to ask yourself and to help provide some insight.
Coping with emotions without using food
Questions to ask yourself:
Are you self-silencing?
Self-silencing happens when you’re aware of your thoughts or feelings, but you don’t talk about them or express them. Individuals who self-silence might also have problems with nurturing their intuitive eater because emotional regulation in the brain is the same place for intuitive eating. If you can relate to not expressing your feelings or not feeling seen, heard, or understood, think about what needs to shift in your life for you to feel seen, heard, or understood? Or, what skills do you think you need to build to help you do this?
Can you connect with your feelings & respond in an appropriate way?
When uncomfortable feelings come up, how do you generally respond? To be able to connect with your feelings, name them and be specific (e.g., I’m feeling shame and loneliness; NOT I’m feeling bad). Be as specific as possible. Then, tap into, Where do I feel this feeling in my body? And gently ask yourself, What would be an appropriate way to respond? Or, What do I need, just in this moment, to take care of myself? Note: Each feeling you have generally will invoke a different response. For example, if you’re feeling rage, you may want to go for a walk or move your body to release some of the tension. Or, you may want to write the person or experience that’s invoking this rage a letter. If you’re feeling grief, you may find it soothing to listen to moving music and cry. As you begin to make friends with your feelings and feel where they specifically are in your body, you’ll begin to get to know what is an appropriate response for your feelings in the moment.
Can you be with your feeling? Feeling your feelings and letting them go
Feelings can be beautiful message carriers, but they can also just be feelings. And as we know, our emotions come and go in various forms throughout the day. Sometimes it’s helpful to simply remember that this too shall pass, and you won’t feel this way forever. Say hello to the emotion, breathe into where you feel it in the body, and know it’ll fade. Also know that when you’re in a state of anxiety or a fear, you can’t think clearly. The antidote to this is breath. Breathe into the part of you that is scared and acknowledge your feelings. If you want to make sense of what happened for you, do it later when you’re in a calm state.
Are you looking at the BIG picture?
If you’re feeling obsessive about food or your body, that’s usually a red light to mean that there’s something else going on in your life that’s not being addressed – you might have unmet needs, be lacking in self-care, or something bigger may be going on in your life. For example, if you’re using food as a way to feel “in control,” what in your life feels out of control? If you’re preoccupied with the fat on your body, what is this preoccupation allowing you to avoid? If you feel bad every time you see your dieting friends, you may need better boundaries in the moment and overtime, to develop and nurture other relationships in your life that feel good. It can also be helpful to think about – What needs in my life aren’t being met – mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually? Instead of zooming in, try zooming out.
Are you honoring the parts of you that are afraid?
Instead of trying to push past the parts of you that are fearful (of a changing body, of gaining weight, of aging, of sugar, of your emotions, of feeling too full, of others’ opinions, of bloating, of grief or of anything else that’s anxiety-inducing) try inviting those parts of you to the table. Because until they’re heard out, until their fears and anxieties are validated and until they’re really understood, it’s going to be pretty tricky to show those parts of you the compassion you need to heal and the validity they need to let you move on. You’re allowed (and encouraged) to hold space for all parts of you.
What benefits are you getting from binging, restricting, or controlling your food?
For many people, binging, restricting, or controlling is an escape from feeling, and a way of checking out. It’s vital to understand – What benefits are you getting from how you’re currently using food? What is it giving you? What do you think the NEED of the binge or restriction was? What do you think the benefits of restricting, dieting, binging, or controlling are for you? Get really curious here. The answer here is what will need to be addressed and is generally a reflection of unmet needs, underlying grief, or skills that need to be developed.
If you identify as an “emotional eater,” is biology involved?
When our hunger isn’t consistently and frequently honored, when we finally get to eat, eating can feel emotional (and sometimes chaotic). Because when we don’t get enough to eat, biology will kick in. And, when you cross over the line into that urgent feeling of primal hunger, your body is designed to want carbs and sugar and more and more food. As carbs and sugar are foods demonized in diet culture, this intense drive to eat them (as well as more food) can feel emotional and make you believe you have a food problem. When in reality, you have a problem with feeding yourself enough or feeding yourself consistently and frequently enough. The driving factor here that can add to the cascade of shame is having rigid food rules. You see, lots of times, we believe binging, overeating, or compulsive eating to be an emotional issue, but sometimes it’s also just a biology issue fueled by not eating enough in the morning, not eating enough carbs, not eating frequently and consistently enough, waiting too long to eat, or not eating enough generally. And shame arises when we go against how we think we “should be eating” or from breaking our food rules. The antidote to shame is compassion for ourselves.
What parts of you aren’t being fed?
You’re a whole human with an intricate inner-world with many different layers and many different parts. If you feel like you can never stop eating or binge eating (and you feel as if you’re feeding your body enough consistently and frequently and giving yourself true unconditional permission to eat what you want), it may be helpful to think about – What are you REALLY hungry for? Perhaps in the moment, but also, more importantly, bigger picture in your life. In exploring this rich question, you can begin to see what you desire to bring into your life – whether it be a feeling, hobby, or experience. For example, you may find that you’re really hungry for a feeling of connection in your life. Is that’s the case, what actions and practices would allow you to feel more connection in your life? Think about it – What are you really hungry for?