Updated: Mar 24, 2020
Or obsessing about your weight, binge-watching Netflix, or drinking too much wine.
It’s March 24, 2020 and we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
Uncertainty, lack of a routine, fear about financial instability, and anxiety about your loved ones’ health are powerful triggers for emotional eating.
Eating emotionally is a result of our inability to tolerate emotions such shame, fear, anxiety, or loneliness.
When we eat emotionally—just like when we watch Netflix for hours or get lost in Instagram posts—we are escaping emotions we don’t want to feel.
It’s in our nature to resist strong emotions. As psychologist Rick Hanson says, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
It is human to feel fear or anxiety. It is appropriate. It is the way that nature protects us. It is the intelligence of nature in action!
Furthermore, historically, our culture has resisted the expression of not-so-pleasant emotions; we either keep them inside or want to fix them.
Over the years, I have learned ways to deal with strong emotions that I now teach my clients.
I want to share three with you:
1. Accept that strong emotions are part of our nature.
When I feel a strong emotion arising, I repeat to myself, “this too belongs.”
This is how I accept the restlessness I’ve experienced these past weeks now that my husband is also working from home due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s how I’ve stayed with the fear of my parents getting sick in Colombia.
It helps me welcome the emotion—without judging it or judging myself—and prevents me from trying to escape it in the form of food, looking at Instagram, or opening 10 tabs with news about the virus.
2. All emotions provide information — the pleasant as much as the ugly ones.
Each emotion has a function and brings with it a message. As as Ph.D., psychologist and author Susan David says, emotions are “data points”, information.
It’s instrumental to shift our mindset about our “ugly emotions” from expressions we dislike and want to fix, to ways in which our bodies and minds are trying to tell us that something deserves our attention.
This new lens makes it easier for us to have a neutral relationship with our emotions. It’s less likely that we take emotions as facts and are able to give ourselves what we need: safety instead of 10 cookies; compassion, instead of a bottle of wine; rest, instead of seven hours in front of the TV.
Personally, neutrality towards emotions feels like an ultimate aim, more than an actual achievable state.
It’s easy to write about neutrality towards emotions when we’re not feeling them! I see this way of viewing emotions as a tool to be less reactive and have more space to respond in ways that are beneficial to us and others.
3. Name the emotions.
Naming emotions as a way to bringing them to the surface makes them less strong and permanent.
When the emotion arises, take a piece of paper and write down what you are feeling. You may be encouraged to name the emotions out loud. If doing it while you're feeling the emotions is too much at this point, explore writing them before going to bed.
The important thing is to acknowledge them and bring them to the conscious level. I write more about this here.
It takes time and practice to absorb these three ways of relating to our emotions. I am not always successful, but I know the tools are available to me and they are the deepest answer we have.
One caveat: These practices are not intended to remove or eliminate emotions. It is not about changing your mood with magic!
These are tools and practices to recognize, welcome, and stay with emotions that — if not heard or attended to — are likely to result in emotional eating and other habits that aren’t beneficial for your well-being.