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Coping with Emotional Eating during Covid-19

We continue our popular weekly HSE series during Covid-19 with the theme: ‘Coping with Emotional Eating during Covid-19’.

The Psychology services for Galway, Mayo and Roscommon will be streamlining some key information for Boyletoday.com viewers each week based on the evidence of what works in similar circumstances.  Our themes will be around building resilience, coping with cocooning, managing relationships, caring for those with disabilities and other vulnerabilities and sharing supports for those who are ill or bereaved.

COVID-19 is bringing unrivaled challenges for us as individuals, and as part of a wider Irish society. It is important that we all do what we can to look after ourselves and each other as we try to effectively manage this evolving situation. For many, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland has brought with it heightened levels of emotion be it anxiety, anger, boredom or feelings of being overwhelmed. Strong or difficult emotions such as these can leave us with a feeling of emptiness or emotional void. HSE Psychologists have put together the following advice which might be helpful in grounding yourself so you can respond as effectively as possible to some of the practical and emotional challenges you, and all of us, are now facing.

For many, this will be a time where food is a source of comfort and there are a host of reasons for this. Food is something that is used to comfort us from the day we are born. In fact, throughout the lifespan eating is associated with soothing. As infants, we were soothed by milk paired with the close contact of our caregiver making eating particularly reinforcing. As children we get the opportunity to explore and gain a sense of achievement and mastery with food. As adults, many important occasions involve celebrating with food. It is therefore only natural that food is associated with soothing and comfort. At times of heightened emotion, food is therefore often used as a form of stress relief or a way of numbing uncomfortable emotions.

Identifying Emotional Eating:

If you eat more when feeling stressed, lonely, bored, angry or jealous or if you use food as a way of calming or soothing yourself for example, you may be engaging in emotional eating.  Emotional hunger is a hunger that can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.

Identifying Triggers:

Once you have identified that emotional eating may be a difficulty for you, the next step is understanding why. This can be done by assessing triggers to eating. One of the best ways to identify unhelpful eating patterns is to keep a ‘food and mood’ diary. This means that each time you eat (or feel like eating) you create an entry in the diary that details how you were feeling at the time of eating (or feeling an urge to eat), exploring if something happened to upset or anger you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterwards. Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up indulging after spending time with a friend whom you find judgemental or critical of you. Perhaps you eat to cope with stress whenever you have a deadline or when you attend family functions. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to feed your feelings. To do this we must understand our emotions and what they are communicating.

Emotions:

Emotions and feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are what they are. The behaviour people engage in, as an expression of their emotions may be helpful or unhelpful. Emotions are very complex and consist of many parts or different reactions happening at the same time. Sometimes the problem is that you do not tune into or sense your body and bodily changes.  Failure to do this can mean you don’t hear your emotions and therefore do not respond in a regulated way. To regulate emotions, you have to be pretty good at sensing your body. In order to gain control over emotional eating it is important to learn ways of coping with emotional distress which doesn’t involve food. The following steps can help you to recognise and let go of emotional distress.

Steps to letting go emotional distress

1.      Observe your emotion – acknowledge it, take a step back from it:

  1. Try to experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going
  2. Do not judge it
  3. Do not cling to it
  4. Open yourself to the flow of the emotion
  5. Be aware that you are not your emotion
  6. Do not act on it
  7. Do not build a wall around or block your emotion – it just keeps it around longer
  8. Practice accepting your emotions – be willing to have them, they have a purpose and are justified
  9. ‘It’s not your fault’ – Remind yourself that it is not your fault that life is difficult right now and that your emotions and thoughts are hard to manage

Steps for increasing positive emotions

Once you have a handle on coping with emotional distress it is important to increase positive emotions. This can be done by firstly attending to relationships which can increase your sense of happiness. It is important to note, however, that we should not place all our happiness on one person or one relationship. Stay connected with family and friends even if this has to be by phone and multimedia at present.

Another way to increase positive emotions is to avoid avoiding. No one can build a positive life if they are avoiding problem solving or doing things that are necessary. Make a ‘to-do list’, write your problems down and brainstorm possible solutions. Most importantly, don’t give up!

Mindfulness of positive experiences is a powerful way of harnessing positive emotions. This can be done by focusing your attention on positive events that occur, even the small daily stuff. Refocus on positive parts of events when your mind wanders to the negative. While becoming mindful of positive events it can also be helpful to try to become unmindful of negative events. Try to become aware of distracting from positive experiences, by for example, worrying that they may come to an end, or thinking about whether you deserve it, or thinking about how much is expected of you now.

Self-Compassion

When we engage in emotional overeating we can become self-critical and have strong feelings of guilt. These feelings can then lead us to seek self-soothing using food and as such a cycle of eating to cope with strong emotions can emerge. Self-Compassion is the antidote to feeling this way. Compassion Focused Therapy is a therapy designed to target these feelings of shame and self-criticism in particular.  Recent research findings have highlighted the positive role of self-compassion in preventing and recovering from these troublesome eating cycles (Steindl, Buchannan, Goss & Allan, 2017). Compassion focused therapy uses imagery to engage our compassionate minds. The following exercise is an example of this and can help you to build a safe and calm space when feelings and emotions become overwhelming. 

Exercise: Creating a safe place (adapted from Gilbert, 2010)

Begin by focusing on your breath. Take three controlled breaths to help centre you. Breathe in slowly and steadily to the count of 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold that breath to the count of 1, 2, 3, 4 and slowly release the breath as though you are blowing out the candles on your birthday cake to the count of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Next focus on creating a safe, comfortable and calming space in your mind. Close your eyes if you find it helpful. You are going to create a place filled with calmness and safeness that you can visit in times of strong emotions.

With your eyes closed, imagine looking around you. What can you see? You might be in a beautiful, ornate garden with water fountains, colourful flowers, lush green grass, a small pond or flowing stream. You might find yourself looking around and seeing a beautiful beach, the waves lapping towards you and the sea stretching out to the horizon. Or you may find yourself imagining a cosy log cabin in the woods filled with woollen blankets and a roaring open fire.

Next focus on what you can feel. Use your sense of touch. Notice the sun on your face, the gentle wind blowing through your hair. Notice if the ground under your feet feels firm or soft? Are you barefoot and able to sink your feet into the sand, or the grass if in a garden?

Now focus on what you can hear in this place. Can you hear the sweet song of the birds in the distance? What sounds can you hear up close? Maybe the sounds of a gentle stream as it gently flows past. Perhaps the rustling of leaves if in the woodland?

Next bring your attention to what you can smell. For example, can you sense the scent of the sweet roses growing in the garden or the salty smell of the ocean if you chose the beach as your safe place? Maybe you can smell the timber beams from the log cabin.

Try now to visualise your facial expression while in your safe haven. Try to picture yourself smiling in contentment at being in this relaxing and tranquil environment.

In practicing this exercise you are creating a safe space in your mind which you can visit to allow your body and mind to relax and take a break. When calling this safe space to mind, try to imagine that the environment itself takes pleasure from your presence. Immerse yourself in the feeling that your safe space takes joy from you being there. In doing so you are building your emotional connection with this beautiful place. It can be helpful to visit this calm and soothing place when strong or overwhelming emotions arise.

Final Thought:

No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions, learn to eat mindfully instead, regain control of your weight, and finally put a stop to emotional eating. Identifying triggers, identifying alternative ways of coping with strong emotions and treating yourself with kindness and compassion are the best ways of doing just that.

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