Of all the concerns I hear about food, eating, and weight, emotional overeating clamors the most often for the most attention.
Not everyone who struggles with food and weight struggles with emotion-driven overeating Many, many people, do, though, for a host of reasons. I’m exploring here one practice that often proves essential as a starting step for change. This will apply not only to altering compulsive habits, but also for dealing with the pains and stresses of life generally. This practice sounds simple but offers more than you might imagine—that is, naming your emotions. This goes beyond saying “I’m fine”, or, more relevant here, “I’m having a lousy day”, or “I’m just really stressed out”. Learning how to identify and give names or words more specifically and exactly to what you’re feeling supports your emotional well-being.
In life we often move through our days paying very little attention to the shifts in our emotional state. Often we end our days fatigued by having pushed through many stresses, annoyances, energy lags. Rarely do we take a deep breath to register what’s gone on in our bodies and minds. Also, we human beings excel at avoiding difficult emotions. Our minds, in a protective fashion, tend to block off or divert us from very difficult emotions without our awareness—this can be especially true for anger, sadness, or guilt, for example. It can certainly seem that paying attention to emotions, large or small, can disrupt the flow of life, make things worse somehow.
Studies consistently show, however, that the simple act of labelling an emotion reduces the charge, to some degree at least. This can mean as little as identifying and naming a feeling to oneself or, more exploratively writing in a journal. Many psychotherapies start with the idea that knowing what you’re feeling can help you deal differently. Meditative traditions, especially Buddhist-inspired, tell us that ignoring, “resisting”, refusing to acknowledge feelings that exist makes them stronger and less likely to change.
When it comes to eating in a way you’ll feel bad about later, learning to check in with and label emotions can lay the foundation for freeing you to make other choices. If you’re drawn toward the freezer in the evenings, for instance, you would begin by stopping—“taking a pause”—and taking a breath. Ideally you could do this sitting, but that’s not absolutely necessary. Scan your body. Can you identify any emotion? What would you call it? Say it to yourself, or aloud, or write it down.
If you can’t identify an emotion, scan for body tensions or sensations. These frequently live in the shoulders, neck, chest, stomach. Rest your attention on the place you’re noticing, continuing to breathe naturally. Sometimes a clearer feeling, a thought, or an image might arise that will help you identify the emotion. If not, take a breath and try again another time. This practice comes relatively easily to some, with more difficulty or practice for others.
It’s not uncommon for people to lack a good vocabulary for emotions, especially those that are more quiet or subtle. (In other words you know you feel something but aren’t sure what you’d call it.) You can find lists of emotion names on line (see below) to help you learn. Sometimes you know what a feeling is once you see it named—“yes, that’s it” or “no, that’s not quite it”.
Will you stop going for the ice cream, or whatever, after you do this? Maybe. But maybe not the very first time. What you will have done, though, is broken the automatic chain of behavior, even if just a little, by pausing and checking in. If you do identify a feeling, you can then ask yourself if eating is the only or the best way to handle it, or if something else might do for now. If you do manage to make a different choice, know that this might not make you feel exactly the same way as the ice cream might have. You might feel great about your choice, or you might still feel very pulled and uncomfortable without the usual behavior. In time, though, you’ll start to feel better and better as you build the number of times you make a different choice. And then eventually your ability to make the new choice will be stronger.
In a way, this is all part of learning how to deal with emotions differently, without food to distract or numb them, to beat yourself up, or avoid something else. It’s not as simple as just naming an emotion, of course, but the practice helps move you in that direction.
To read more about the benefits of emotion labelling, here is a helpful New York Times article, with references to a site for emotion names. Other “emotion name” sites will show up if you simply search that term as well.