What do you reach for when you feel your anxiety starting to rise? What helps you release the tension that builds when you’re feeling worried, freaked out? What gets your mind off what you’re anxious about and onto something that feels better, if just a little? What do you reach for to calm your nerves? Yep, food.
Why does overeating help? Seriously, why don’t we over-meditate or “over-something” a bit healthier? It sure would save us from compounding an already challenging anxiety situation, not to mention money on our ever expanding Spanx collection!
We’re wired for taking the path of least resistance. This seems to be especially true when we experience emotional discomfort. Few of us were ever taught the skills needed to get through tough emotional times in a healthy way.
As a result, most of us avoid, push down, deny or numb our feelings through whatever means most available to us at the time. Once we see that it works, it becomes a go-to habit. After that, this maladaptive strategy is employed over and over with very little thought.
Sometimes we keep reaching for “comfort food” because it reminds us of better times in the past. Other times we reach out for “treats” to get us through. And then sometimes we reach out for something that is usually “off limits” so we can subconsciously create the opportunity to stop feeling anxious and start hating ourselves. Seriously.
Eating also may serve a subconscious function of feeling like we are in control, because anxiety sure doesn’t feel that way. Or it may serve the subconscious function of feeling that we are choosing the lesser of two evils, either we can freak out or we can eat. So many possible reasons!
Each person is different, and I don’t want to make this issue sound too easy to fix. Habits are brutal. But with strategies in place and practice, it is possible to start a new habit around your anxiety and eating.
That said, the strategies I’m going to suggest may seem totally unappealing and I know it. They don’t come with any dopamine hit from getting a treat, they don’t set off a blood sugar spike in your bloodstream, they don’t release the neurochemicals involved in reaching for the “forbidden fruit” and they don’t insert a behavior that allows you to turn your emotions to anger.
I know, it is a tough sell.
Even for me and I teach this stuff! But, I ultimately believe in our ability (and need) to prevail against immediate gratification.
Here’s how you do it.
- Recognize you’ve gotten into the habit of choosing food to address your anxiety or other feelings that aren’t comfortable.
- Notice when you start to feel your anxiety (or other uncomfortable feelings).
- Label your feelings and body experience as anxiety.
- Tell yourself that you can handle these uncomfortable anxious feelings without eating.
- Turn your attention onto something else. Yes, you are trying to distract yourself here.
- Take deep breaths, with longer exhale than inhales.
- Repeat steps 2–5 until you’ve moved past your discomfort. It may take a little while but will get easier the more you do this.
To recap: You start being more aware of your feelings. You tell your brain what is going on by labeling your anxiety. You tell yourself that you know your brain will want you to eat. And then you show your brain that you can handle it without food by turning your attention onto something else. Then you repeat the process over and over until you safely get past the discomfort without reaching for food or something else.
Like I said before, this process doesn’t come with any of the things we’re used to. It doesn’t instantly relieve the tension, it doesn’t give us a jolt of neurophysiological anything and it doesn’t allow us to transfer our anxiety to self-loathing.
BUT what it does give us is the ability to transform our anxiety in an empowering, healthy way and that eventually will become second nature!