Mindful Eating in the Midst of an Emotional Time
Brooke Feinerman, PhD
Brooke’s training is in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University, and a PhD in somatic psychology from Pacifica. She has additional training and certificates from Harvard’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine.
In the midst of discomfort, pain and fear, we all look for ways to self-soothe. For many people, food has a history of being used to both celebrate happy moments and comfort us in the midst of challenging times. Food is involved with important memories and moments shared with loved ones, and often times is also linked unconsciously to feeling connected to others. Due to these strongly held memories of special social experiences involving food, it becomes critical when feeling alone to watch for ways we might reach to food to fill up the space of loneliness, disconnection, stress, or sadness.
One study showed that participants who viewed sad images were more likely to reach for food to self-soothe, confirming something that many of us might already know; when we are sad, we often want to “eat our feelings.” One reason we do this is because food is a quick way to provide our brains with an increase in “happy hormones,” such as serotonin, the neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being. Serotonin can be produced within the brain through different activities, including exercise, exposure to sunlight, and eating carbohydrate-rich foods. Studies regarding the relationship between carbohydrates and neurotransmitter release can help explain why we often crave high-carb items when we engage in emotional eating. It is important to note that refined carbohydrates can actually increase inflammation in the body, which means in the moment it might make us feel better, but in the long run is not good for our overall health goals. There are other foods that are high in L-tryptophan that can also help increase serotonin levels and can be healthier choices in the correct serving sizes. These foods include salmon, tuna, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, tempeh, cheese, spinach, and dark leafy green vegetables. Additionally, there are other natural, non-food ways to increase both serotonin and dopamine, another neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being. These activities include but are not limited to: getting into nature, exercise, a practice of gratitude or mindfulness, calling a friend or loved one, and being exposed to bright light. Engaging in these types of behaviors can help increase positive mood. Research has shown that negative mood states can increase our likelihood of engaging impulsively in emotional eating. Developing healthy coping skills, tools for self-regulation, and reducing negative mood states as much as possible have been shown to help reduce the likelihood of eating emotionally.
Practices in mindfulness can be of great use to individuals as they work on developing new coping skills. Mindfulness practices involve cultivating an awareness of our attention and adopting a nonjudgmental viewpoint. It is powerful to develop your own tool kit for self-soothing and coping that does not include food items. For example, if in the past you would eat a donut to feel better upon feeling stressed, can you instead create a list of alternate activities that you enjoy, including making a cup of your favorite herbal tea, going for a walk-in nature, calling a someone you love, watching a funny show, listening to some of your favorite music, or taking a hot shower or bath.
One method used for helping individuals through addictive impulses is called urge surfing. Urge surfing is a kind of mindfulness practice where one is able to observe the desire or impulse to reach for the food item or engage in a behavior that might not be serving their highest good, but not act on that impulse. One can imagine that the intense urge is like a wave coming to shore; it gains height and force, but will eventually crash, flatten out, and dissipate. Studies show that mindfulness practices such as urge surfing have been able to help increase self-regulation function and impulse control. Research shows that these type of mindfulness practices change parts of the brain involved in memory, with additional studies also showing that mindfulness practice can help with regulation of choices, feelings, and behaviors, as well as an increase awareness to physical sensations within the body. These things are important in the context of making healthy choices for food, exercise, rest and connection to loved ones, because as we work to make new habits and choices, engaging in mindfulness practices can help us strengthen those healthier behaviors.
An additional way to help strengthen healthy eating is through the act of savoring. Savoring food when you eat helps you to be more mindful of nourishing your body. Savoring is important for an additional reason; for habits to stick, and be something we want to keep doing, we need to find the intersection between enjoyment and healthy choices. It is important to remember to honor your body with healthy food and exercise, as well as to honor your feelings as they arrive in your awareness. Stay attuned to your emotional needs by asking for support from a friend or doing an activity that nourishes your mind and emotions, such as yoga, breathing meditation, walking, journaling, or calling a friend to connect. The added benefit of these practices is shown in research which supports that cultivating attunement to both our physical needs and emotional needs can create greater balance in our overall state of being, which in turn has a positive impact on one’s immune system response.
Keep celebrating each victory, no matter how small it might seem. Even the longest paths are always taken just one step at a time. Take the next step, keep going. Be compassionate with yourself. Wishing you success in your wellness journey, and health in mind and body, always.
Guest Blog by Brooke Feinerman, PhD (www.brookefeinerman.com)
This article is intended for information purposes only, regardless of if the information is presented by a medical practitioner, physician or other professional. This article is provided to educate and inspire you on your personal journey, and is not a substitute for specialized medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be relied upon for specific medical care or in the place of specific medical guidance provided to you, by your care provider.
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“Mindful eating is eating with intention while paying attention.” – Kati Konersman
Cover Photo Credit: Wholistic Food Therapy
Blog Photo Credit: Prevention.com