I was once told that instead of eating chips and salsa when I’m stressed, I should light a scented candle.
Boy, I wish that would have worked because it’s pretty easy to light a candle. If only it could have melted my troubles away…
I would have immediately opened a candle company so I could capitalize on all the people lighting candles to lose weight. I would have called it Magic Weight Loss Candle. And just to be cocky it would be snickerdoodle cookie scent. Because hey, you’re lighting this candle so there’s no way you’re going to want to eat cookies now, right?
Ultimately to lose weight and keep it off, we do need to examine how we can stop using food as a cure-all for difficult feelings. However, I’ve found that when I jump straight to a list of “10 things to do besides mindless eating” it doesn’t usually work. This is because it skips a very important step.
Think about it in a work context. Do you jump into tactics at work without having a strategy or understanding why?
If you’re a marketer and you send a one-size-fits-all “blast email” to your entire subscriber list just because you can, is that really going to get results? What about considering the business outcome you’re trying to achieve? Are you trying to sell a product? Who is the target audience that’s going to benefit from the offering? And what should you say that’s going to help them understand the value you can provide? Is email even the best way to reach them?
When you select tactics that aren’t aligned to the desired business outcome, you spin your wheels and can even make things worse. In the marketing example, we could lose the ability to email the people we’re trying to reach because they have unsubscribed after receiving messages that don’t resonate. When we do have something good to say, they don’t want to hear it.
The same principles apply to tackling emotional eating. When we select a course of action from a random list of tips and tricks, we often don’t find the relief we’re looking for.
In the past, I was always picking substitutes that didn’t make me feel better. I didn’t really know why. I just knew I kept craving and feeling bad. Craving and feeling bad. Over and over. I resented it. I felt helpless. I worried I’d never figure out a way to resist the temptation of food.
What changed is I started checking in with myself and labeling what I was feeling. Then I could figure out what I actually needed.
You may think that asking how you feel and labeling your emotions is a little hokey. The equivalent of lighting a candle, maybe?
However, a team of researchers at UCLA found that labeling our emotions really does calm our minds. Through brain imaging, they observed that when study participants saw pictures of angry or sad faces and labeled them as such, it calmed the area of the brain responsible for sending us into alarm mode. At the same time, the labeling activated the brain area responsible for inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.
This is a powerful process you can utilize any time in any setting. You don’t need any equipment or materials, and you don’t really even need to be alone.
Science supports it and it’s worked for me. I like to refer to it as Name It and Tame It.
Let me walk you through an example.
One eating trigger for me is writer’s block. When I’m struggling to finish an assignment, I start to think about food. The longer it’s taking or the more I’m stuck in thought, my mind goes “Hmm, maybe I need to hop over to Starbucks…” or “Have I had a snack yet? Popcorn sounds good.”
I check in with myself. What am I feeling? (Name it.)
Usually, it’s frustration that I can’t seem to finish the assignment or identify the perfect words and phrases I’m looking for. And if I don’t like the assignment in the first place, it’s frustration that I’m even having to spend time on it. I’m feeling frustrated with a touch of “I’m not good enough.”
So what do I need?
My answer here varies as well, but it’s typically some variation of I need a break or a reward. I’d sometimes rather be somewhere else doing something else. If that’s the case but I’m trapped at the office, I need comfort.
Is food going to solve this for me?
The rational answer is always no. I think back to times (even recently) when I have gone ahead and gotten something from the vending machine, trolled the office to see who has chocolate on their desk, or went to Starbucks and ordered more than just coffee. It never helps.
Actually, it makes it worse because I’ve spent more time not getting the assignment done. And, depending on what I’ve eaten, I’ve either felt uncomfortably full, not full at all and wanting more, or suffered from a sugar crash shortly thereafter.
If not food, what will solve this for me? (Tame it.)
Since writer’s block and needing to finish the assignment is the issue, what will actually help me is doing something that frees my mind so the thoughts I’m looking for can come. This could be a couple of things.
First, getting out of my chair and walking around for a few minutes will change my physical state, which will let more oxygen flow to my brain. This will help unblock the thoughts I’m trying to get flowing. I could go talk to someone, walk a flight of stairs (not always a great option if I’m wearing heels), or walk to the break room to get more water. If the weather is nice, I may walk around the building.
If I still feel like I need something food oriented (I find this happens more often when my need for comfort is stronger), I will go to Starbucks. But I’ll order my half-caff Americano with a light splash of heavy cream via the app. That way, it’s ready when I arrive. I go straight to the pick-up area and entirely skip waiting in line where I can stare at the display case of treats, deliberating whether I could or should have one.
I truly enjoy this drink so I don’t feel like it’s a crappy substitute for what I really want. This option gives me two solutions for the price of one because I get to walk to Starbucks, changing my physical state, and have my coffee.
Another option is that I keep a lot of tea at my desk. Tea has become a very reliable food substitute for me and I love that I can get flavors I might be seeking without the consequences of eating the foods in which they’re commonly found.
For example, I love Yogi brand’s Mayan Cocoa Spice, especially in the winter. Plain ol’ peppermint is a good flavor to calm my stomach, but it also gives me a fresh, energized feeling. I keep several boxes so I can pick based on my mood. And I love the little quotes they have on the tab at the end of the tea bag string.
It took me time to figure this out. It took experimentation with different solutions until I found something that stuck. But it all starts with labeling my feelings.
I have to label my feelings before I can rationally think of solutions and have the wherewithal to give them a shot. You gotta name it before you can tame it.
Are you ready to name and tame your feelings that drive you to eat? Let me help you break it down. I’ve created a step-by-step Name it and Tame It worksheet that will help you determine a plan you can use the next time you want to eat something you know you won’t feel good about later. After you’ve tried it, email me back. I’d love to hear how it went!
Start taming your emotional eating.
Get your copy of my Name it & Tame It Worksheet.