You And Your Emotions: Navigating Food And Life
“We do not fundamentally operate at the level of thoughts and analysis – we fundamentally operate at the level of emotions”. Jim Collins
One of the more foundational deceptions of human behavior is the belief that we are rational beings. Sure our well developed neo corteses are capable of astounding feats: the depths and breadths of human innovations are incomprehensibly awesome. And yet so many of us feel that we are in a constant battle with our emotions – ceding to their overwhelming power and being swept away by them.
I am the furthest thing from an expert on the subject of emotions, but I want to share some bits from a couple of experts whose work I’ve been following on podcasts, articles and audiobooks. Particularly Dr. Susan David, Harvard Psychologist and author of the book “Emotional Agility”. Here’s what I’m learning:
Emotions are messy/difficult yet beautiful signposts that allow us to understand ourselves better and navigate our world.
Despite what we’ve been raised to believe or what society tells us, there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions. All emotions are “good” emotions. Either through childhood experiences or through “positive vibes only” meme-ology, the message has been quite clear: Anger/sadness/boredom/stress are “bad” emotions and must be quieted, while happiness/joy/gratitude must be brought out to override the “negative”.
Dr. David calls a loud and clear Bullsh*t on this.
What she calls “display rules” are unintentional signals that your feeling is “undesirable”. She refers to the stifling of these emotions as the “tyranny of positivity”. According to David this both:
- Perpetuates denial
- Perpetuates an incapacity for us to authentically be with our experiences.
Trying to “positive-think” your way out of the emotions has some negative consequences. In children for example, placating their sadness or anger with trying to immediately make them happy reduces their resilience.
We tend to deal with “negative” emotions in 2 different (or overlapping) ways.
- Bottling: We try and brush them aside, ignore them or “think happy thoughts/gratitude” our way out of them. And/Or
- Brooding: We ruminate or dwell on the emotions and get swept up in a downward spiral of “why am I feeling this way” thoughts.
Both situations lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms and a vicious cycle ensues.
These patterns can lead to elevated anxiety, depression and relationship dysfunction among other things.
Keys to “Emotional Agility”
- Realize there are no “good” or “bad” emotions. Emotions are real and signal something that is important to you.
- Emotions help construct our personal narratives and help us make sense of the world around us.
- Embrace the reality of “integration”: You CAN simultaneously hold grief and joy at the same time.
- Small changes work best. There is power in small realizations and meditations on our emotions. “Social snacking” – whereby we take note of small things that fill us with joy: A photograph, a book, a tree along your walk. Practice noticing these things.
- Emotions are not an end product – they are fundamental to adaptation and personal growth that help us self-reflect.
- Emotions help us see the world as it is – rather than how we wish it to be.
- Use a better frame: You are not “sad” or “angry”, you are experiencing sad or angry emotions. Your emotions are not facts or directives.
- There is a space between stimulus and response where we have a choice – and within that space where the growth and transformation happens.
- Approach emotions with curiosity: “I am feeling very frustrated by this.. I wonder why that is?”
Thoughts On Emotional Eating
Now an article on emotions wouldn’t be complete without a section on emotional eating, would it?
So much of our food overconsumption is in response to emotional discomfort. Our instinct is to fill this void brought on by the emotional trigger. The first step in facilitating emotions is to recognize that this “void” is just made up of thoughts and body sensations. In a sense, they are more “emotional sensations” than they are “emotions”.
When we are attuned to this we can step back, make sure we don’t feed the loop and let the rest take care of itself. The void lessens, becoming less frequent and less prolonged. Here are some thoughts on how to ride out emotionally-inspired cravings:
Curiosity feels inherently good – certainly much better than the dread we often conjure up when cravings hit. Approach your cravings with curiosity and wonder. As an example:
“Hmmm I’m REALLY feeling the need for a pizza right now.. Like an entire at-least-medium pizza.. I wonder why? Am I stressed? Yes, I am.. Today was a rough day filled with difficult conversations. Bored? Yeah that too. I’m home alone and it’s friday.”
Discern real hunger from emotional hunger
When cravings hit, I would invite you to employ the hunger stress test:
- If you have an urge to eat: Do you have symptoms of hunger? Belly growling, irritability, fatigue?
- When was the last time you ate? 1 hour ago? 7 hours ago?
- If you are stressed, use the RAIN method to ride it out (see below). If you’re hungry, go for the healthiest option possible.
- Mindfully consume whatever food it is you have chosen. Take 5 mindful bites. Don’t bring the next bite to your mouth until you have fully chewed the previous bite.
Remember that irritability and stress can be a false signal of hunger. It takes some time to work that space between stimulus and response but you can train your brain to disrupt this cycle through practice.
The R.A.I.N. Method
Created by Psychiatrist Dr. Jud Brewer, RAIN is all about paying attention to when your body needs food and when it does not. Relax into your thoughts.” method.
R – Recognize/Relax
- Resist the urge to “brace for impact” and become anxiety-ridden. Practice being in tune with your body’s sensations.
A – Accept/Allow
- Don’t ignore your cravings. Welcome/allow them. As noted above, be curious.
I – Investigate
- Become interested in body sensations and specifics of the cravings. Is there something you are specifically craving? What’s your earliest memory associated with what you are craving? Is there a need not being met? Is there a better solution for you right now that aligns with your goals and your identity?
N – Note your experience.
- How do cravings manifest in your body? What kind of sensations do you feel? Where? Is it deep in the belly? Buzzing in the head?
In most cases, cravings will build, crest then subside. Dr Brewer describes them as being like bonfires. Trying to stomp it out will only make you catch fire. Don’t fuel it or fan it. Approach with curiosity, questions and examine specifics. Try distraction and waiting things out. If you still really feel like you want that specific food at that specific time, then go for it. Enjoy it slowly, deliberately, mindfully and without guilt.
Take Home Message
Emotions are neutral, natural and are important messages that help us learn about ourselves and how we navigate the world around us. It is healthy to embrace emotions – especially what society deems “negative” ones. Get comfortable unpacking the emotions by being curious, reflecting on them and using them to grow as a person.
When navigating craving, remember that your emotional sensations may be giving you false signals. Remember to pause and reflect. Recognize the emotion, accept the emotion, investigate and take note of your experiences. Ride these craving waves and then seek out the best way to fuel yourself for your needs.