Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Food and Emotions

We need food to sustain and nurture ourselves.  And food is intricately linked to both positive and negative emotions for almost all human beings.  For example, many cultures embrace the use of food for celebration or to provide comfort in times of sadness or emotional distress. It’s normal for us  to associate food with our emotions.

But how do we know when we are feeding an emotional, rather than a physical, hunger?  And when does this become a problem?  "Emotional Eating" is a behavior that is dictated by the way you are feeling at the moment. Whenever you experience pain, frustration, depression, or boredom, you turn to food to fill the void and satisfy your emotional hunger. While you feel fulfilled during the process, afterwards you’re often left feeling worse than before. It becomes a problem when emotionally driven food habits take over from healthy eating and result in uncontrolled weight gain.  Emotional hunger has been tied to many eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating. 

Here are some ways to distinguish emotional and physical hunger:

Emotional Hunger:
Is sudden
Is for a specific food
Is urgent
Is paired with upsetting emotions and situations
Involves automatic or absent-minded eating
Does not respond to fullness
Comes with feelings of guilt

Physical Hunger:
Is gradual
Is open to different foods
Is patient
Occurs out of a physical need
Involves deliberate choices and awareness of the eating
Stops when full
Realizes eating is necessary

The most common feelings that trigger emotional eating are stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, anger or frustration, and sadness.  The next time you’re going through an emotional phase, instead of reaching for snack food, you may want to try some of the following:
  • Stop and evaluate your feelings. Become aware of what is happening and know that if you can ride it out, it will eventually pass.  All feelings are temporary.
  • Take time out to write what you are feeling down. 
  • Release your feelings.  If you need to cry, do so.
  • Develop new mood regulation strategies.  For example, when you are anxious or stressed, try exercising, taking a hot bath or have a hot beverage.  Or call a friend you trust to talk about what is bothering you.
  • Food issues can be very complex and often involve messages we received from our families.  Awareness is key.  Often talking to a licensed professional, like a psychologist, can help.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

A universal and very human struggle is how we can feel less alone and more connected to others.  Attachment is hardwired into our brains.  Like it or not, we are all social creatures in need of connection.  It's a basic need for survival, dating back to when we are newborns and are so utterly dependent on another human being to continue life.

In a now famous lecture on TED.com, Dr. Brene Brown spoke about the important concept of worthiness.  The fear that we are unworthy, she says, keeps us from fully connecting to others in our lives, and keeps us isolated and afraid.   Dr. Brown's research shows that people with a sense of worthiness believe they deserve love and belonging, have self-compassion, and possess the amazing courage to be imperfect.  People who have a strong sense of worthiness are also willing to take more interpersonal risks - they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in relationships while being comfortable with the idea that there are no guarantees and certainties in relationships.  They allow themselves to be seen and known by others while embracing their imperfections.

As a society, we are obsessed with perfection.  This also means obsession with appearing not-vulnerable.  Perfection can mean an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to make all the uncertainties in life certain - a futile quest.  When we realize that we are indeed vulnerable human beings, we tend to try to numb this often scary feeling - by acquiring material goods and overspending, turning to food and drugs, avoiding responsibility and blaming others (just to name a few examples).

Dr. Brown says we all have an immense fear of disconnection from others; she calls this the definition of shame.  This fear is part of being human.  She suggests that in order to improve relationships and have that real connection, we could consider making ourselves vulnerable:
- To let ourselves be seen by others as we truly are
- To love with our whole hearts even though there's no guarantee
- Practice gratitude and joy in everyday life
- Embrace the belief that we are enough, that we are worthy of love

The power of vulnerability - what a concept!
Dr. Brown's full lecture is available here.