Have you noticed during this pandemic and recent community emergency, that you are struggling to stay on the path, or maybe getting on a path, of mindful eating? If you are, you are not alone.  

There’s a reason for this. It’s your brain. You see, your brain is a very efficient organ. It likes to group information and file patterns of behaviors as one chunk of information so that when you need that chunk of information, it can pull it up with as little energy as possible.  

Let me give you an example.  If you have been driving your car for any length of time, you likely notice that driving has become pretty automatic.  However, if you think back to the very first time you ever drove, you likely will recall that you were a bit slower in implementing all the steps involved.  You probably had to “think” about adjusting your mirrors and putting your foot on the brake before turning the key to start the engine. You likely started off driving very slow. It wasn’t too long before you stopped “thinking” about each of these steps and began just doing them. When this happens, the brain uses less “thinking power” and is more efficient.

This same concept occurs with all our repeated behaviors. The more we repeat a sequence of behaviors, the more patterned and automatic they become. This is why coaches have their athletes repeat basic drills at every practice. They want these behaviors to be automatic when game time arrives.  

So what does that have to do with these recent events, staying at home, and emotional eating?  

If you have a history of turning to food for comfort when you experience boredom, loneliness, anxiety, anger, (add your own emotions and situations here), then you have a “file” in your mind that maps each of these emotions and experiences to the behavior of eating.  If you’ve comforted yourself with food in the past, you are likely experiencing those same urges to use food for comfort during this season of many unknowns, boredom, and social distancing.  

“But I had this under control and have new skills that I don’t seem to be able to use today!” 

If that is true, and for many of you, it is, your new skills have likely become more automatic in less stressful, less emotionally intense situations. Unfortunately, the pathway connecting these skills to the “crisis survival” folder has not been constructed yet.  

So now what? Today is the PERFECT time to build the pathway between your new coping skills and these more intense emotional experiences.  How do you do that? Those pathways are built in the same way you developed new patterns and methods of coping during less intense emotional experiences.

Here are five ways to help yourself resist emotional eating today:

  1. Slow down. Notice that you are experiencing the urge to eat your way through an emotion. Be aware of your triggers, whether they’re coming from stress, feelings of emptiness, or social influences.
  2. Talk to yourself about your options. You might consider taking a walk outside, playing with your pet, calling a friend, or watching your favorite show on TV. Find those activities, outside of eating, that will help you experience your emotions in a more mindful way.
  3. Try two or three of these coping strategies for at least ten minutes, and then reassess how you’re feeling. Sometimes the urge is short and just a few minutes of distraction will be enough for your mind to move on.
  4. If you’re still feeling the urge to eat, consider repeating one or two of these coping strategies for another ten minutes.
  5. Speak positive thoughts. Remind yourself, “This too shall pass.” Sometimes simply checking in with yourself, reminding yourself that this is temporary and will be OK, and acknowledging the feelings and emotions you’re experiencing is enough to change the impulse.

One caveat… If you are physically hungry, you need to eat. The postponement of eating will not reduce the natural cues from your body to eat due to physical hunger. Instead, the best thing to do is honor your body’s need for nutrition throughout the day.  One of the most common triggers of overeating is letting yourself get too hungry.  Put structure around your eating patterns. Start each day with breakfast around the same time. Do this for every meal. The more structure we have in place, the better we do. This structure does not need to (and should not) be rigid – you can consider an hour window of time as one option.  

Above all, be patient with yourself and recognize your progress. Understand that it can be very normal to eat for emotional reasons, and that is fine, as long as it’s not the only way you cope. Celebrate the smallest of successes, and then continue building upon them.

Take care.

– Kim Bushman, PhD, LP, Founder and Executive Director