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Friday, 4 April 2014

Waking up from the food trance

The key driver of emotional eating is our thought patterns. That moment when something happens (boss gets angry, you wake up late, you need to start that big presentation, your friend cancels etc) and you have a thought (I can't do this, it's too hard, she doesn't care about me, I'm useless etc). That thought is old, limited, all or nothing and based on old beliefs known as "learned helplessness". I've talked about the way to overcome these is to challenge them over and over again. (Is it really true that I can't do this? Is there another way I could do this? Could I get some help? Does my friend actually love me and I'm just overreacting a bit here?) The next step would then be to take some sort of action - (get the help for the presentation, find another way to do the task, reassure yourself of your friend's love and arrange another meet up). 

This system is great for understanding that something triggered you, exploring the confused thinking underneath it, considering alternatives and taking some form of action to cement that. But what it doesn't do is help you in that moment when you are totally incapable of any reasonable and rational thought - when your frontal cortex (the part of the brain devoted to rational thought) is disengaged and the red mist is up. I know those moments. When I am half way through a sandwich before I remember my tools.

That is the moment we missed "the pause". The moment is gone, and in that second we soothed with food and reaffirmed the old "learned helplessness" reaction instead of carving out the new, better-for-your-waistline reaction. Not only does this do nothing for your dreams of fitting into your ideal jean size, but it also reaffirms self doubt, inability and knocks your confidence for the next time. It's a vicious cycle, and that's the shitty thing. The more you miss that "pause", the more you engage in negative self talk and all or nothing thinking, the worse and more helpless you feel, and the bigger and more desperate that urge to soothe with food becomes.

So what can we do to gain a bit of sanity back in those red mist moments to give us the time and mental space we need to step back, consider and basically calm down? The type of snap back into reality I am talking about is the kind of mental shift which happens when we reach for food - immediate relief. It needs to be fast, easy to do and effective. 
How will you know if it's effective? Easy - your need for food will diminish instantly, your anxiety levels will drop and that overwhelming urge to grab food now will become more of an uncomfortable niggle at the very worst. You can then explore and find a more permanent solution for that later when you've managed to step away from the cheese. 

There are a couple of options for this - Michelle Morand recommends 4-7-8 breathing for that calming effect. Now, a pre warning - it is a bit fluffy and for some still not concrete enough. I was skeptical, but it really does have calming effect. This method of breathing cuts off oxygen to the reptilian part of your brain (the automatic instinctive part which has that pesky knee jerk reaction of trying to "protect" you with food). It works with practice, perhaps though it's not quite not enough to feel immediately relieved and safe.
Instead I have started understanding the benefits of support, relaxation and enjoyment as a new way of coping in those desperate moments. There is evidence to support that phoning a friend, having a nice bath, going for a walk, planning a trip, having a break, getting your nails done or even a massage can bring you that instant hit of calm, pleasure and relief you need to gain perspective and engage your rational brain. You just need to choose which type of relief you need. If you're feeling nervous or afraid, I'd say support would be best. For work stress it's probably option b and for loneliness it could be all three. You get the idea. 

Of course a friend can't do your presentation for you, and a massage won't help you deal with an argument with your boyfriend, but what it will do is act as a very useful and welcome buffer between your knee jerk "learned helplessness" reaction and food. (Not to mention adding some great things into your routine which will brighten up your life). Remember my post on the role of pleasure in weight loss? This is it in action. When we are in that state of high anxiety and we manage to choose support, relaxation or enjoyment instead of food for our instant dopamine fix, we can then be in a much better place to make decisions in a reasonable and realistic way, and those problems which seemed insurmountable suddenly seem much smaller. 

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