Eating Your Stress or Anxiety Away? You Might Need Some Emotional Nutrition.

I struggled with food almost my entire life. I haven’t talked about it much but that’s because I’ve sort of been...

Eating your stress or anxiety away? You might need some emotional nutrition.

I struggled with food almost my entire life. I haven’t talked about it much but that’s because I’ve sort of been oblivious to it for almost all my life as well. In fact, it’s only since the beginning of this year, when I actively started looking for help to finally get out of the yo-yo dieting cycle I’d been in for so long, that I realized there was more to this than just my insatiable love for carbs and fatty foods.

The thing is, I’m an emotional eater. I use food to comfort me, to cope with things, to deal with stress.

I know food can be so good. Sometimes it’s exactly the reward we need. After a long day of work sitting down at a table full of delicious foods, surrounded by family and friends. Who doesn’t want that, right? I believe we all have the right to enjoy the pleasures of life – and that definitely includes food.

In fact, in an ideal world, every meal would be consumed this way. Together with people you care about, while being present. Not at a desk, or in the car. Not in front of the television, or while we’re on the phone. But mindfully in the now.

The link between emotional eating, stress, and anxiety

It’s no secret that I have a history of high anxiety, and worry. In fact, it’s something I’ve carried with me probably for as long as I’ve struggled with my diet. I’ve also been a people-pleaser, workaholic, and perfectionist for most of my adult life. When I take a closer look at how I deal with pressure I see a link between periods of lots of stress and weight gain, and periods of less stress and weight loss. You’d think I’d made the connection a long time ago, but the truth is I didn’t.

When I enrolled the help of a holistic nutritionist and health coach at the beginning of the year, my main objective was to improve my relationship with food. Not so much because I thought there was anything particularly wrong with it (little did I know!) but because I wanted to learn how to make better food choices, and improve my diet.

Health coaching is much more than diet advice. It’s about connecting with your body, listening to your intuition, taking action. Guided by the advice of my coach I started to get more in tune with myself. Quickly a pattern emerged. Whenever I felt something I would translate that feeling into thinking I was hungry.

A striking example of that happened a couple of months ago. Sam and I were walking our dog Flex in a forest in the center of Sofia when all of a sudden a stray dog (of which there are many in Bulgaria) came up to Flex, trying to attack him. After a couple of exciting minutes we managed to get away, all of us unarmed. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body, and I knew I had been scared stiff. But the only thought that went through my mind was that of a yummy sandwich. While my husband was expressing excitement, the only I was saying is “let’s go eat something”.

The problem was we just had breakfast. My stomach wasn’t empty. But I was stressed out, anxious, and definitely shaken by what just happened.

That morning walk was pivotal for me. It made me realize how out of sync I was with my emotions, how much I had repressed them to the point that there was only one feeling left: hunger.

Yes, I was hungry. I craved nutrition. But not the food kind.

Emotional nutrition as a remedy for stress

What I really needed was a different way to deal with my emotions, especially stress. I think I’m not alone. In today’s world we’re told that emotions are a weakness, not a strength. We’re asked to balance careers, with family, children and a busy social life. There are so many expectations, so many things we have to do. Especially as ambitious, multi-passionate women eager for achievement life can be so stressful.

When I decided to improve my diet in January I had no idea this goal would bring me where I am today. But it has, and I’m grateful. When I understood how I was dealing with stress, and the effect this had had on my body, and my weight for so long, I decided to change that coping mechanism for good.

That’s when I first learned about the concept of emotional nutrition, and when I discovered three main things that helped me to profoundly transform my relationship with food, and how I cope with stress. If you’re struggling with emotional eating, stress, anxiety they might be of some help to you as well. So here they are:

#1 You’re more stressed than you think

The first thing I needed to do was to realize I actually had stress. Yes, I know! How could I not be aware of this, right? Well… I wasn’t. At least I wasn’t aware of the amount of stress I was dealing with on a daily basis, and how it affected my well being. By getting more in tune with my body, and by being aware of “simple” things like my heart rate or breathing it became clear to me that I was under more pressure than was good for me, and that I probably had been sort of non-stop for many years.

#2 Uncover the hidden thoughts

Once I knew how to recognize the signs of stress in my body I set out to uncover the thoughts that caused it, or at least accompanied it. From Transcendental Meditation I’d learned about the connection between stress and thoughts, so I wanted to know what I was thinking when the pressure was building. What I discovered was a downward spiral of anxiety often caused by a single (probably false) idea. It could be anything from thinking I had said or done something wrong during a social interaction, to questioning someone’s behavior toward me, or even fretting over the memory of something that had happened long ago.

As soon as the idea planted itself in my head I noticed my heart rate go up, my breathing getting shallow, and my mind go into overdrive. The more I focused on the unpleasant thought, the more I felt like eating something…

#3 Munch on emotional nutrition instead

I believe it’s the body’s natural reaction to want to return to a state of balance when there is too much internal or external pressure. I also believe that for many women food has become the way to calm down. I know it was (still is) the case for me. Early on in life I learned not to express my emotions to the point that I lost touch with my body and how I felt. The only form of comfort I knew was food.

When I realized that I was eating my stress, anxious thoughts and emotional turmoil away, I decided to let all of it out instead. From then on, whenever I felt something, I decided to talk about it with someone I trusted, expressing my true emotions, my most anxious thoughts. This is something that I had never done before. In fact, something I thought I was not allowed to do.

The effect was incredible.

Rather than food, I was now munching on emotional nutrition. I was feeling supported, loved and cared for, getting to know my inner self better in the process. I was giving a way out to stress, instead of keeping it all in.

The result? Shorter periods of anxiety. Less silly thoughts. Better sleep. Stronger friendships. A greater sense of self. More happiness. And fewer trips to the fridge.

How do you cope with stress? Are you an emotional eater like me? Let me know in the comments below.

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