Everyone eats emotionally from time to time – it’s part of the human experience. ‘Normal eaters’ will sometimes eat to distract from disappointment, hurt or fear and they will also overeat while celebrating. However what they don’t do, is feel guilty about it, or consistently eat to resist their emotions.
Building emotional resilience is a crucial skill to be able to eat like a ‘normal’ person. This is not to say that people who don’t have a disrupted relationship with food, are emotionally resilient – they just don’t use food to cope with their emotions. The may use shopping, sex, smoking, TV, work etc – there are many ways to not deal with emotions!
Emotional resilience, is the ability to be with your emotions, to allow and fully experience them, in a way that they don’t engulf you.
Mindfulness is paying attention to your full experience in the present moment, without judgement – but rather with curiosity and kindness.
Much of our attention on our emotions is not about our present experience.
It’s about the past:
- Feelings of e.g. sadness, anger, hurt, shame when you remember that so-and-so said/did something (recently or long ago)
- Those same feelings when you remember something you’ve done or even thought about
- Feelings of despair/anger when you remember that you ate xyz list of foods (5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days ago)
It’s about the future:
- Feelings of fear or anxiety when you think about having a conversation with a particular person
- Feelings of fear or anxiety when you think about an exam, a party, an event, a meeting you’re planning to attend
- Feelings of panic when you think you ‘should’ be a certain weight or size by a certain date
Our present experience is the felt sensations in our bodies, right now.
It’s the explosive heat in your belly and/or chest
It’s the sinking punch-in-the-stomach sensation
It’s the tightness in your throat and/or shoulders
It’s the band of tightness across your forehead
It’s the thumping of your chest
It’s the knot in your stomach
It’s the ‘butterflies’ in your stomach
It’s your shaky knees
It’s the trembling in your whole body
It’s the expansive, opening feeling in your chest
It’s the tingling in your whole body
It’s the crinkling feeling around your eyes, nose and mouth
It’s the softness you feel in your stomach, shoulders, throat and/or chest
Instead of paying attention to the story attached to the feelings, acknowledge to yourself ‘this is a moment of suffering.’ Become curious about and practise paying attention to the physical sensations associated with the emotions, in the present moment. Allow yourself to experience them. Describe them to yourself. Notice how they change as you observe your experience. When your mind goes into the story about why you’re feeling this way, bring your attention right back into your body and pay attention to the physical sensations.
When you practise being with your feelings in this way, you develop an ability to recognise that you are experiencing a feeling. You cultivate a sense of detachment, of non-identification with the feeling. You are not anxious/angry; rather, you’re experiencing anxiety/anger in this moment. And you begin to remember more readily that the feeling is temporary.
When we allow ourselves to fully experience our feelings, they move through – and it doesn’t usually take that long. E-motion… implies movement. Emotions get stuck when we don’t allow them passage.
Our culture is overly focused on the pursuit of pleasure, on getting away from feelings of discomfort. We’re not very adept at being with the difficult feelings.
But this is part of the human experience. And if what you want is to eat mostly when you’re hungry, you’ll need to develop your emotional resilience. Learning how to accept and be with whatever arises is a truly extraordinary skill, that will reach far beyond your relationship with food. It will reach into your relationship with yourself, with other people, and with life itself.