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How Mindfulness Can Help Curb Emotional Eating

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We're halfway through #Whole30AtHome and weeks deep into shelter in place due to COVID-19. While we may be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, our goal is always to help our community with resources and education to live a happier and healthier life. That's why we're so pleased to bring you this blog from Whole30 Certified Coach and Integrated Psychotherapist, Amanda Morris. She's sharing info about our body's stress response and how to incorporate breathing and mindfulness into your daily routine.

ABOUT AMANDA MORRIS

A licensed psychotherapist and behavioral coach, Amanda is also a certified health & wellness coach in addition to being a Whole30 Certified Coach. With a focus on integrative wellness as a foundation for an optimized life, Coach Amanda views the mind, body, spirit, and behaviors as one, using a holistic approach to overall optimal living. Using the knowledge and skills she has gained as a psychotherapist and the tools she has learned as a behavioral coach, she combines those with her vast knowledge of health and nutrition to give her clients a solid foundation from which to enhance their health and wellness. 

Dr. Amanda Morris

On Mindfulness and Emotional Eating During the Covid-19 Restrictions 

To give you some context, Mental Health America, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to supporting the needs of those living with a mental illness, reports that they have been monitoring their database daily during this pandemic. According to MHA screeners, they have experienced a 19 percent increase in screening for clinical anxiety in the first weeks of February and a 12 percent increase in the first two weeks of March of this year. They believe this is a result of people’s lives and sense of wellbeing being severely impacted by concerns over the virus. If you relate to this, you are not alone!

Many of our go-to coping options have been cut off or altered. As a result, we are finding ourselves looking for comfort and ways to make ourselves feel better. For many, that has resulted in an increase of using food and alcohol as our primary way to cope. This may be a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress or soothe uncomfortable or unwanted emotions.  

STRESS

Our body sometimes responds to stress by initiating an automatic stress response mechanism. Part of this systematic response is the activation of a hormonal cascade intended to provide us with energy to react to either a real or perceived threat. Did you notice I said perceived threat? This is important because fear and forecasting future negative events that have not yet and may not happen causes your body to respond as though it’s real! This built-in response was designed to shut off when the threat is over, but in our current culture we are constantly under stress, part of which has to do with the uncertainty of the future. Our stress response system can go hours, even days, without being turned off.  Under stress we produce cortisol, a stress hormone. Although cortisol is part of a natural response to stress, excess levels of the hormone contributes to problems of obesity, inflammation, chronic illness, and many more negative health consequences.  

In times of stress our bodies also react by craving sugar and processed foods. If you are one of these people please do not judge yourself. This response is your biochemistry working not your willpower. Eating and drinking can create a short term feel-good sensation. Just thinking about a particular food item such as ice-cream can cause a boost of dopamine. When we eat the ice-cream we get a boost of serotonin. Serotonin helps us feel relaxed and happy.  This is a short-term effect. Long-term, this cycle can lead to feelings of guilt and self-anger. Unfortunately the original trigger or feeling remains the same. The more you stay in this cycle, the more you reinforce that eating and drinking unhealthy foods will make you feel better. However, this way of coping has many unintended emotional and health consequences.  Emotional hunger cannot be satisfied with food. So how do we break this cycle?

Tune In To your Body

The first step is recognizing your body is trying to feel better. We often blame and judge ourselves but that is not helpful. Mindfulness is a great first step in honoring the space we are in and creating a foundation for self-awareness. In its simplest form, mindfulness is a state of paying attention to the present. It’s a state of being open and observing your feelings and behavior through an objective non-judgmental lens. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a tool that allows you to be more aware of your physical and emotional conditions without attaching negative self-talk and judgment. Mindfulness, when practiced, is a great tool to help you acknowledge behaviors that are often automatic. When you eat out of emotion, your reward center in your brain becomes stimulated through an increase in dopamine. Once the habit is created, emotional eating becomes automatic. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help break this automatic and often unconscious behavior. It can also help decrease impulsivity by helping you become more aware and therefore intentional with your actions.

Breathing

An easy, yet often overlooked, resource for improving mindfulness is intentional breathing. The internet is full of thousands of free links to guided breathing exercises, print outs, and videos. The simplest way to get into the habit of recognizing your breath is to incorporate a breathing exercise into an already established habit. Pick something you do each day, such as brushing your teeth. Before or after, take 5 minutes and intentionally practice your breath. 

Quick Exercise

*Lower your shoulders, settle your weight into your seat.        

*Breathe in through your nose while expanding your stomach with air. 

*Pause. 

*Breathe out either through your nose with a closed mouth or through your open mouth. 

*If you can, make your out-breath longer than your in-breath.

*So if you breathe in for a count of 4 breathe out for a count of 7. 

It can be that simple. Once you get the hang of it you can explore multiple outlets of formal breathing exercises. The way you breathe affects your whole body. Breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress. It can assist with bringing your thoughts back to the present moment which will support you in making more conscious and intentional choices. 

Mindful Eating

You can also give mindful eating a try. There are many guided mindful eating exercises out there.  

Here is a simple way to incorporate mindful eating into your meals: 

  • First, put your food on a plate. Try not to graze out of the bag. Sit down and rid yourself of distractions such as social media or computer work. 
  • Take a moment and thank your food source for the meal you are about to receive. 
  • Notice the variances of your food. Pay attention to your range of senses such as smell and texture. 
  • When you eat, be intentional. Chew slowly. There are schools of thought as to how many times you should chew each bite. A general rule of thumb is to just pay attention and take your time while chewing. You can count if it helps you but you don’t have to. This will also help with your digestion. 
  • Pause occasionally between bites. Set down your fork, take a few breaths and really engage and enjoy the experience. 
  • This allows your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full. If unsure, wait 10 minutes and re-evaluate. 

Mindful eating takes practice and does not always come naturally. The more you practice the more natural it will become.

This blog is just a snapshot of emotional eating and mindfulness but hopefully, it can give you a starting guide into becoming more aware of the role food is playing in your current situation. We are all human navigating unprecedented times. Give yourself grace. Do more of behaviors that serve you well and decrease behaviors that make you less well. Take it one hour, one day or one week at a time. If you are interested in learning more about this topic you can find resources below.

Keep in mind what you eat affects the balance of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin which play a role in mood and appetite. Pay attention to what type of food you are eating. For an exploration if now is the right time for a Whole30 you can check out this link from Whole30.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness here is a great resource for anything mindfulness related.

Using food as a way of coping can be a natural response; however; if you are concerned you may have disordered eating or would like more information on getting help for an eating disorder, click here.

Thank you to Amanda Morris for sharing her wisdom and tips about emotions, mindfulness, and coping with stress. You can find out more about Amanda on her website, explore her resources, and find out if coaching is right for you!
Tell us in the comments: how are you coping right now? Are you doing Whote30 at Home?

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