Why Am I Really Eating This?

Why am I eating this_ _ Cognitive Behavioural Coaching _ Erin's Life Bites

I used to have a thing for Skittles.

It was more like a compulsion for Skittles.

At one of my former jobs, there was a vending machine.  If you work in an office, chances are there are one (or five) convenience portals to grab food.

The first six months of working in this particular office, I didn’t know anything about that vending machine.  Not a thing.  I couldn’t have told you one item that was in that machine.  You get it.

One day I was informed that I had to take on a new, challenging and time-consuming task that would take up approximately three days at the end of each month.   And then that one task turned into multiple responsibilities also expected of me each month.  And needless to say, some of these tasks did not come easily to me and often frustrated me to tears.

When I couldn’t balance out reports or my workload started to become completely overwhelming, I began to feel the stress.  At first, I tried to incorporate stress relief tactics like mindful breathing and going for a walk out to get some fresh air.  However, one of those days on my ‘time out,’ I decided to walk into the office kitchen and look into the abyss of the vending machine.

I bought a package of Skittles and brought them back to my desk and ate them all as I continued to work my way through stressful tasks.  I did the same thing the next day and the next day and every month-end after that.  In fact, I kept a bowl of change for the vending machine in my desk drawer to be sure that I could get my ‘Skittles on’ during the end of month duties.

After five months of my vending machine habit, I put on six pounds and spent about 400%  above the wholesale cost of Skittles in the process.  I also noticed the days I would eat sweets while trying to work through reports and reconciliations, I would go home feeling depressed and would eat more when I got home or drink one too many glasses of wine.  Stress begets stress begets stress, am I right?

Why am I eating this?

I have this saying that emotional eating is a lot like Dumbo’s feather.  I’m assuming most people have seen or read the story of Dumbo, but in case you haven’t, Dumbo had unique, oversized ears that enabled him to fly.   When Dumbo first discovered his talent, his friend and confidant, Timothy Q. Mouse, gave Dumbo a ‘magic’ feather which would enable him to fly.  In the end, Dumbo loses his feather but still manages to fly without a hitch.  The feather gave Dumbo a false sense of confidence, support and security.  My Skittles compulsion (and every other food I used in times of stress, pain, and sadness) were not so different than Dumbo’s feather; they provided me with a false sense of confidence, support, and security.

We emotional eaters all have a bit of that Dumbo’s feather element when it comes down to it.  

When we are feeling discomfort, pain, insecurity or shame, we turn to food to give us much-needed self-care that we need at that moment.

I’ve had people tell me over the years that they struggle with food (and subsequently their weight) because they were having a bad day.  They didn’t get that job, their friend got angry at them, nothing in their closet fit them, or something traumatic is lingering in their subconscious, and they need to “quiet the noise.”

I want to be clear, in my opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating.  It is an attempt at self-care — to soothe and manage our emotional discomfort.  Many people feel additional shame and discomfort when they emotionally eat because they feel like they are helpless or powerless to food.

Emotional eating is not about being helpless or powerless it is about feeling helpless and powerless over emotions.  Emotional eating is a behavioural response, and therefore it can be managed with the right support system, knowledge and tools.

Emotional eating is not about being helpless or powerless it is about feeling helpless and powerless over emotions.  Emotional eating is a behavioural response, and therefore it can be managed with the right support system, knowledge and tools.… Click To Tweet

One of the first steps that can be taken to manage an emotional eating trigger is to stop, look at the food and ask yourself, “Why am I  really eating this?” – and here are some questions to provide you with an honest answer:

1. Am I truly hungry?  True hunger is physical.  When we are truly hungry, there are physical cues supplied by our bodies such as weakness, depleted energy, lightheadedness, and shakiness.  If you are feeling physical symptoms of hunger, your body is telling you that, yes, you do in fact need to eat something.

2.  What is happening right now?  Stress and anxiety are two big triggers for emotional eaters.  In the situations when you have the urge to eat something, take an inventory of what is happening at that moment.  Are you at work?  Are you under the pressure of a deadline?  Did you see or hear something upsetting and you’re unsure what you can do to process your anxiety?  Did something or someone remind you of a painful memory?  At that moment take a minimum of two minutes to breathe and ask yourself, “What is happening right now?”  Write down your feelings and give yourself 15-20 minutes to take a break or grab a drink of water.  Giving yourself time to assess the situation and the feelings you are experiencing can help you become better aware of ‘why’ you are eating when you are eating.

3.  What can I do instead of eating?  Okay, so you have assessed the situation, and you know you’re not truly hungry, and you’ve taken your time to ask yourself what is happening at the moment – so now what?  What can you do instead of eating when you are feeling anxious or stressed?  You should not ignore your feelings because they are valid.  If you are feeling anxious, stressed or triggered in any way, you should work on strategies that will help you tackle those emotions.  For example, in my situation with stress eating Skittles while feeling under pressure at work – in hindsight, instead of turning to junk food during those times, I should have talked to my boss and told her I was struggling.  I am not blaming myself for not asking for help, but part of my emotional need to eat was based on feelings of insecurity about my work but led me to ignore the fact that all of us have to ask for help from time to time.  There is no shame in asking for help or admitting that we feel overwhelmed.  As you work on building confidence with food, you will become more in touch with what triggers your emotional eating, and that awareness will help to better equip you with strategies and solutions for the times you need to exercise self-compassion without using food to cope.

It is important to remember (and yes, I am a bit repetitive – sorry!) that emotional eating is an attempt to self-care.  It is also important to remember that emotional eating often leads to feelings of shame and that sense of guilt can lead to emotional eating.  While I do not believe there is anything shameful about wanting to care for ourselves and show ourselves compassion, I do think that it does negatively impact our ability to have confidence with food.  The ability to trust that we can make the distinction between needing food for physical survival and relying on it for emotional survival and learn the way to give ourselves the best chance of repairing the relationship between food mind, body, and soul.

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If you are interested in working on repairing your relationship with food by working with me one-on-one, please email me at erin@erinslifebites.com and don’t forget to subscribe to post updates!