Relationship with Food Series Part 5: Emotional Eating, Self Soothing and Meeting the Change Triangle
We’re back with part 5 of our relationship with food series, and today I’ll be sharing some amazing resources that will be so helpful on your journey to a better place with food, especially when it comes to emotional eating. We’ll be talking about how normal it is to see food as part of our coping tools (eating for reasons other than hunger is a part of normal eating and emotions play a part in this), and what can help when it has become the only coping tool. I’ll share a resource that has been enormously helpful in understanding emotions and anxiety, and we’ll talk about how there isn’t just one side of us running the show when it comes to our eating, and how we can begin to nourish the different sides of us, with and without food.
It’s not uncommon that from a very early age, those of us who have had a hard time dealing with difficult emotions, have also found our way to using food as a coping mechanism. For many of us food was associated with early rewards, or it was used to help us deal with tough emotions such as sadness, grief, anxiety or worry. For some of us the restriction of food was used as punishment, or perhaps fun foods were only permitted when we had been “good”. For some of us (myself included), food became a great way to momentarily escape situations we were not prepared to face or weren’t old enough to face. For many of us it was the way family members showed love and affection, for others it was a door to a calm space, away from difficult circumstances. For some food was where you turned to when you’d had a bad day, or perhaps it was the way your culture expressed its sense of community and enjoyment. Whatever our origin, most of us have learned from pretty early on that food is a point of connection, of celebration, of reward, and it can be a way to cope with difficult situations or emotions.
Let me start this off by saying that this is NORMAL, and it’s a part of normal eating. It’s part of being a human being who eats several times a day, in a world in which cultural traditions, religious traditions, family traditions and rituals all involve food. It’s also normal to rely on food as a distraction, to desire to eat out of pleasure even when hunger isn’t present, to want to treat ourselves for a job well done, or to seek comfort in food. Emotional eating becomes hard though, when we’re using food as our only coping mechanism for difficult emotions. It’s when we rely exclusively on food as a coping tool against boredom, sadness, happiness, worry, anxiety, grief, instead of looking into what could actually help soothe our emotional state, when emotional eating can become something we might need help with.
Emotional eating and I
I tell you all this, as usual, from a very personal perspective. I learned very early on the amazing power of food as a source of connection, but also as a source of distraction, of loving care, and even self care. The problem wasn’t getting a treat after I had to go get a shot from the doctor, or getting a trip to the ice cream shop when there had been a crisis at home. For me, the problems started to arise when I was turning to food so often to cover up difficult emotions, that I begun to completely disconnect from my emotional self. Meaning, I couldn’t distinguish worry from boredom, or anxiety from sadness, or hunger from any emotion. If you’re like me and emotions manifest very strongly within the body (for example feeling a bubbly feeling in the stomach when you’re nervous, or a headache when you’re stressed, or an emptiness in the chest when you’re sad, a stomach ache when you’re anxious), it can be especially hard to distinguish your body’s hunger and fullness signals from these emotional states. It can also be very hard to find actual relief because the source of the emotion and the emotion itself is never acknowledged or soothed.
It took a lot of emotional healing work to begin to separate and understand emotions. To know that I could let myself feel them and that there were other coping tools much more helpful than food to get emotional needs met and worries eased. The good news is that no matter where on your journey you are, you can always begin to work on some of the difficult underlying issues. For me going to therapy was paramount, and if you can afford it, don’t think twice about getting the help you need (and this is paramount if you are struggling with or have struggled with disordered eating or an eating disorder). Still, even after many years of hard work, I have needed little tune ups. Since our lives are always changing and in a constant state of ebb and flow, it’s perfectly understandable that our relationship with food follows the same pattern. Through the years I’ve encountered many resources that I believe to be incredibly helpful, and I’d like to share three of them today.
3 fantastic resources to get started with
The book Intuitive Eating by Elysse Resch and Evelyn Tribole
This book, and especially its accompanying workbook, are brilliant to help you understand the ins and outs of why we’re all so conflicted when it comes to our eating. It will help you determine the type of eater you are, what your past history with food has been like, and the many cues we’ve received and continue to receive when it comes to our way of eating.
In regards to emotional eating though, it is especially helpful in developing what is known as interoceptive awareness, i.e., becoming really attuned to our bodies signals for everything from hunger, fulness, thirst, feeling tired, to the different ways each of our main emotions feels within our bodies. When working through our issues with emotional eating, it can be so helpful to learn how all of these bubble up within us. For example, how does anger feel within our bodies? Do we feel tightness in the chest? Do our palms sweat? Do we get a headache? Does depression or sadness start showing up as a general lack of energy? Do we feel anxiety as shortness of breath? A stomach ache? Restlessness? Where do we start feeling the first signs of hunger? What about fullness? Can we differentiate between feeling tired and feeling overly full or overly hungry?
For us feeling the need to go to the bathroom is as clear as day. We don’t question it, put a limit on it, set a specific time for it, we simply feel it and act accordingly. This is part of interoceptive awareness but it isn’t the only part. When we’re trying to find help and support with emotional eating or our relationship with food, the first step is trying to acknowledge that we’re feeling something, that there have been changes in our body that can act as little alarm systems. Intuitive Eating and the work these dietitians have done can be so helpful in connecting with our inner signals, helping us find a way of eating that doesn’t rely on external rules of control, but rather on our own inner wisdom when it comes to food. The second step is to recognize what it is we’re feeling, that’s where the next resource comes in.
Meet these wonderful dietitians and the Intuitive Eating framework:
Their book Intuitive Eating
The Intuitive Eating website
Evelyn Tribole’s instagram page
The Change Triangle
The amazing mental health professional Hillary Jacobs Hendel has developed a tool that I’ve been needing for years (especially as someone who has struggled with anxiety in the past). In fact, her work and the change triangle were the entire reason why we began this series on our relationship with food in the first place. Since I always share these topics stemming from my own personal journey through them, I always want to guide you to the qualified professionals that can help you through this journey in a much better way, and rarely have I encountered a resource as practical and approachable as this one.
The change triangle is a fantastic visual tool to help us identify our defenses, i.e. those practices and actions we use to ignore or avoid feeling our emotions (things like over worrying, over working, addictions, over eating, over controlling of food, over exercising, excessive use of screen time, spacing out, etc.), our inhibitory emotions (mainly guilt, anxiety or shame), and our core emotions, i.e. where the work is really needed (grief or sadness, fear, anger, excitement, sexual excitement, joy and disgust).
I love Hilary’s work and it really opened my eyes into just how much lack of emotional education we receive. We aren’t taught what is essentially at the core of her work, and that is that when emotions are acknowledged and felt, they will ebb and flow, come and go, and we’ll be able to reach what she calls “the openhearted state of the authentic self”, which is essentially a state of calm, confidence, curiosity, compassion, connection, and courage. The change triangle is a visual image or tool that will allow us to get to the bottom of what it is we’re feeling, let it come in, and eventually go out.
We’re so unaware of our emotions in today’s world, always acting from the point of our defenses, or through our inhibitory emotions, that we rarely allow for our real feelings to be comforted and felt. I can’t tell you how helpful this tool has been in helping me with my anxiety, and in understanding what’s underneath some of those moments in which my first impulse is to turn to food instead of finding the true soothing and care I need.
I’ll let Hilary herself explain the triangle and how it can be used (and I’ll also go over it a bit in the audio version of this post above):
On the nature of emotions
On how to use the change triangle
I cannot recommend Hilary’s work enough, I’ve been working through the change triangle in my journal and it has been life changing!
Here are the many ways in which you can access her wonderful work, and work the change triangle to re-learn how to deal with emotions, understand their nature and find the tools that will really help, rather than simply reacting to life events, avoiding difficult emotions:
Hilary’s website and a step by step guide to using the change triangle
Her book “It’s Not Always Depression”
Her wonderful instagram where she shares so much wisdom in bite sized pieces
Her youtube channel with countless videos on the topics of emotional health and the change triangle
Paige Smathers RD and the Nutrition Matters Podcast
Although there are so many fantastic books and podcasts I’ve recommended in the past when it comes to healing your relationship with food, and I still love them all, I’ve recently found a fantastic professional who not only speaks about intuitive eating and improving your relationship with food, but who also talks a lot about mindfulness, a topic you know I’m passionate about. I love Paige’s podcast because she’s not afraid to discuss the nuances of intuitive eating, for example, how intuitive eating can go hand in hand with religious practices like only eating kosher foods, or the food restrictions present when being Muslim. She isn’t afraid of speaking about intuitive eating and making an ethical choice like being vegan (as in this wonderful episode in which she interviewed our favourite vegan and intuitive eating dietitian Taylor Wolfram). As far as I’ve seen there isn’t another podcast on this topic which is so open with these conversations, which were previously slightly taboo within the intuitive eating community.
I’m so excited to introduce you to her work today:
Her Instagram Page @paigesmathersrd
Her website and private practice at Positive Nutrition
Her online courses and workshops (including a mindful eating workshop that looks amazing!)
Nourishing the Different Parts of You
Before I leave you for today with all of those amazing resources to check out, I want to touch on something I talked about in an earlier episode and post of this series. It’s the fact that when we’re going on this process of emotional discovery, it can be hugely helpful to see just how complex we are. Our complexities as emotional human beings, as people who may have experienced trauma or who may have simply gone through the process of adapting to the world we live in (in which some characteristics of who we were were deemed “wrong” or “unacceptable”), can make it so that there isn’t just one YOU sitting down to eat. It was huge in my journey to a better relationship with food to notice that there were many sides of me that were present at the moment of eating.
Before I went on this journey, there was a side of me that was sitting at the table with a very strong sense of wanting to be perfect. This side of me was only happy and content with counting calories, eating small portions, and had so many rules when it came to what foods to eat. Along with her, and present at the very same table, in the very same moment (because of course all of them were me) was a side of me who wanted to rebel against all the rules. This would mean that even when I felt satisfied or full, this side of me would make it very hard for me to stop myself from cleaning the plate. There was a side of me that was all about the shame I felt when it came to my body image or the quantities I wanted to eat. A side of me who would feel immense guilt when it came to how I felt after eating. There was a side of me screaming out to be fed more. A side of me screaming out to control food and restrict more.
What has happened through this journey I’ve been on with food, is that my truest side has come through, I know this is the truest version of me because there are no rules or regulations, just as there is also no rebellion against it. It’s a side of me that loves and enjoys food, but is ok letting it go and moving on to other things. It’s a side of me that loves nutritious foods like fruits and veggies, and also enjoys fun foods like French fries and ice cream without guilt. This side of me has always been the goal, to find a place where I’m at peace with food. Still, after being in this space for a few years now, I still have moments in which the other voices are a bit louder. I still have moments in which I’m feeling insecure about my body, and the dieting side of me gets louder, or moments in which I had a lovely and delightful meal and the side that used to feel guilt over indulging wants to rear its little head. There are also, especially for me, many times in which I know I’m comfortably full, but the anxious side of me that was restricted for so long wants to keep eating.
The difference now is that I’m able to recognize them, recognize the emotion behind them (is it fear? anger? sadness? excitement?). It is here where I come in with curiosity, to ease and soothe these parts of myself by asking “what do you need?”, “what does this side of me need?”, or “what did I need when this side of me started to appear in my experience with food?”. I’ve had to learn about these sides of myself and I’ve had to nourish them with food when food is what’s needed, and with things other than food when that is what’s needed, with all the tools I’ve shared today and in all our previous posts and episodes. It will always be a work in progress because our eating and our way to deal with emotions will always be in a state of change. It’s when I understood and found compassion for this that I truly began to soothe my emotions (and the complexities of our emotional lives), and make sure that my needs were met, both with food, and with things other than food, finding more and more peace with it as I go through this journey.