My students generally agree when they emotionally eat it’s almost like a surreal experience. Before they know it, it’s over. And while it may be overall helpful at the moment (don’t ever doubt, because it is!), what happens after is something we together call “phase 2” or what buddhist psychologists call “the second arrow” – the difficult and painful thought and emotional landscape of the aftermath. Because the behavior of eating to manage a state happens so fast and automatically, we rarely have the chance to look at the “iceberg-like” structure behind it. We jump to phase 2 so quick, we entirely forget that we can rewind and see what happened there.
If you’d like, let’s unpack the last time you found yourself engaged in emotional eating. This can help you slow down what occurred, gain personal insight, and find new ways of holding the event in your history and in your self-reference library.
Bring to mind a recent time of emotional eating. For those of you who don’t eat to regulate emotions, but rather restrict or engage in strict dieting, you can do that instead.
Really call the image of yourself to mind, almost like you are watching a movie.
Sit back in your movie theater comfy chair, sink in, pull up a blanket and become a neutral observer.
Where are you? Call to mind the place, time of day, environment? Are you home, at work, in the drive-through? At a coffee shop? Are you alone or with others? What is your overall state – positive, neutral, negative? What emotions are you experiencing? What was happening earlier that day? Is there something happening tomorrow? What thoughts – both thoughts referencing others and yourself do you find? Are there any sensations in your body you can discern? A lump in the throat? Heat up the neck? A constriction behind the eyes and a tightness in the jaw? Are you shaky? Queazy? Numb?
Let the next scene of the movie unfold. Watch yourself eat the food you chose. What’s it like? Is it sweet, savory, crunchy, or the opposite – smooth and soft, melty? See and feel yourself swallow and take a next bite. Now take a note of your breath, are you breathing between bites?
Take as long as you need to watch this scene, without judgment, like you would not judge an actor in a movie. If emotions come up, gently meet them without engaging too much, note them, and let them move through.
Now let’s see the next scene – you are now done with your eating. Where do you find yourself compared to the beginning? If you can see a before and after shot – what are you feeling, sensing, thinking, experiencing? What’s your overall state? Really pause the scene here, as often we are in phase 2 quickly and miss what the emotional eating episode did for us.
I know for me, I would emotionally eat when I felt alone, isolated, rejected and forgotten. My nervous system would be in a predominantly freeze state, I would feel numb, disembodied and floaty. I would have thoughts about the past or the future, but not be able to see, feel or experience myself from the inside in the present moment. As if the one looking at my life was outside, not inside. In this dissociated state I would reach for a melty, soft and sweet food – like a creme brulee, or a yogurt with honey. I would eat it slowly, and then soon find myself comforted, held, present, as if wrapped in a warm blanket. Later I would read in Gabor Mate’s hungry ghosts book about his patient describing their experience of taking drugs the same way and I would weep in understanding. Because isolation and loneliness, the experience of rejection and abandonment were unbearable to my physiology I would naturally reach for food. The numbness would lift and I would feel good enough to go to bed. Until I woke up in phase 2 – and I would go into swift decision making mode to “fix” whatever I perceived needed fixing.
People who take the Emotional eating 101 webinar or retreat get to learn why episodes of emotional eating happen. They serve to regulate a physiology that cannot return to what we call “safe and social mode” – where the system is regulating itself in the safe presence of others. Some of us grew up wired a certain way for survival and to this day, when we experience “too much” or anything – we may reach to food as a way to regulate. I personally find nothing wrong with that, as long as we look at each episode as an attempt for the body to communicate to us that “something is needed”. I also remind all my students that these behaviors started as a way to help, support and regulate when there was no other option available, and while they have caused suffering, they have also been a vital support.
It just so happens that the nervous system wiring that serves feeling safe and content, secure and felt in the presence of another is the same wiring involved in ingestive behaviors. Maybe read that again: the rest and digest system which allows us to deactivate, settle and feel safe is wired by the same nerves as the ones that participate in chewing, swallowing, breathing, listening and connecting. For the geeks CN V,VII,IX, X and XI. Of these X – the vagus (pictured above), receives the most publicity, but it doesn’t work alone.
So what might be different the next time you emotionally eat if you knew that in that moment, what you really need is to connect – to self, to others, to your larger circle of belonging – to feel safe, settled, felt. What if you could see emotional eating as a way that your body is communicating your needs to you, instead of identifying it as something that is “a problem to be solved”.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and of course, feel free to also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until then, peace with food: