Let’s face it-anxiety can create overwhelming feelings of emptiness and discomfort. As a result, food can become a cherished crutch.
If you’ve eaten your way through anxious moments, you’re definitely not alone. Emotional eating is one of the most common ways that those who suffer from anxiety seek relief. That’s also the reason that we are determined to get to the bottom of this issue.
Today, we are honored to welcome one of America’s foremost experts in the topic of emotional eating. A yoga therapist who holds a master’s degree in counseling, Sarahjoy Marsh is the author of the much celebrated Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food.
Following are the wise words of wisdom that she shared with us.
Hi Sarahjoy. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Emotional eating is a problem for many of our readers. What is the premise behind emotional eating?
By the time a behavior pattern becomes compulsive, we may no longer know what’s driving us. And if the instinct for these behaviors arose early enough in life, we may feel we’ve never known.
When we feel driven and compelled to complete a certain behavior, there is often a bio-chemically-driven rush or urgency to do it, as though if we don’t we might die. While we may not experience this cognitively, and we could dispute it intellectually, there are very real physiological occurrences urging us to act.
Compulsive eating and emotional eating share several components. The arousal of desire. Craving. Craving to the point of distraction. Anticipation of the food and the relief it will bring. Regret. And a feeling that the food is more powerful than we are.
To compassionately understand what lies beneath both compulsive and emotional eating, it can help to understand the nature of your brain. The limbic brain, also called your emotional or mammalian brain, is programmed for high-speed responses to threat or perceived threat. It is designed to alert you, arouse the necessary fight or flight responses, and provide you with the biochemical and neurological necessities to assure your preservation and survival.
This aspect of your brain is what makes you part of the family of mammals everywhere. It is soothed by connection and by food. You were born with a brain that must seek the brains of others to assure its survival. Your brain has an instinct to create connection, companionship, and safety through relationships. Food can become a substitute for these things. It can become your sense of connection and companionship.
Consider the qualities of a friend who is consistently there for you. In this same way, food has “been there.” Food will be there. Food is non-judging. Food doesn’t reject you. Food soothes your brain. Food can be a reward, a celebration, an apology, a time out, or a source of solace. And it carries a level of predictability as it creates the same outcomes again and again. For example, those of us who have developed emotional eating patterns have experienced the confidence that “food will be there next time, too.”
For most of my students with compulsive or emotional eating behaviors, there is co-arising anxiety. Often, we see early life histories with relationships that didn’t provide consistent enough nurturance, safety, support, celebration, or solace. While their brains were exploring instinct-driven developmental surges, if the humans caring for them couldn’t be relied upon for the necessary inter-dependent and relational needs, food may have served as a suitable substitute. In this case, we’re more likely to find ourselves turning to compulsive or emotional eating to cope with a host of life stressors, including our ongoing developmental, psychological, relational, and spiritual imperatives.
The thought of letting this coping mechanism go is a scary thing. How does one come to terms with this?
Looking back at the limbic brain’s primary responsibilities to inform and preserve our survival, this is the center of the brain that becomes vigilant (or hyper-vigilant). It is programmed to trigger our fight or flight reactions, and becomes sensitive to any threat, real or perceived, external or internal. In light of this, the thought about letting go of a coping mechanism does in fact feel very scary. Our limbic brain may register fear and panic. Just as we decide to lessen our reliance on a coping mechanism, we may fight with ourselves about our decision, postponing it until tomorrow, second guessing our plan for stopping, or punishing ourselves with one more painful episodes with our coping mechanism. Or, we may attempt to flee from our decision (disconnect from ourselves, become hyper-distracted, or escalate our anxiety until food looks like a survival mechanism again).
An even more primitive (evolutionarily) part of our brain is in a constant choreography with the limbic brain. The reptilian brain supports functions such as thermo-regulation, metabolic functions, hunger and satiation, and restorative processes, such as sleep. When we perceive a threat, we are wired to mobilize or immobilize. We can fight or flee, as above, but we can also freeze or collapse: seek relief from overwhelm or terror by shutting down, socially withdrawing, numbing, or “trancing out” to avoid pain.
There are very real times when, just as you aim to stop using a coping mechanism and risk either going without (which I don’t recommend, if you have nothing else on board) or trying something new (which I do recommend), you experience a kind of terror and freeze, like a deer in headlights, or collapse, like a bird stunned from crashing into a window. In these cases, your intellect may have had a great plan. But your lower brains, both high-speed processors, were scared enough that they prevented you from taking action.
With this in mind, I teach new tools, which I call Essential Life Skills, to nurture our brain and body, mind and heart, before reducing the reliance on existing coping mechanisms. To nurture your limbic brain, seek behaviors that soothe you as a mammal: connection with other safe mammals (including humans, yes, but also your pets), activities that soothe your senses (beauty in the natural world, music you love, creative pursuits that engage your senses, such as painting, gardening), and moving your physical body while creating new bio-chemical baselines. I’m speaking here about yoga. When you transform how you breathe and move and shift the inner dialogue with which you are engaging while doing so, you literally develop new brain pathways that can transform your reliance on food and emotional eating into a healthy relationship with your body and brain. You are reviving your instinctual ability to nourish yourself with breathing, moving, playing, and resting.
From the bottom of your brain, your reptilian brain (brain stem) is soothed by breathing and moving. Your limbic brain (middle brain) calms down with these fresh messages from your reptilian brain. And, as you shift your inner dialogue to one of hopefulness and self-respect, your neo-cortex (the third aspect of your brain and the one that developed most recently in the evolution of humans) also soothes your limbic brain. As this occurs your intuition, courage, and confidence will re-emerge.
If you could suggest three steps to begin to address emotional eating, what would they be?
- Breathe to disarm anxiety. Breathe to shift your nervous system back to parasympathetic function (the nervous system that promotes your vital health and relaxation capacity). Your main breathing muscle is your diaphragm, but when you’re anxious you may over-recruit chest breathing muscles and generate tension in and around the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing may also be called abdominal breathing, or belly breathing.
- Practice yoga interventions throughout the day. You don’t want your system to accumulate tension all day long. In other words, don’t wait to manage emotional eating until a transition, the end of a work day, the beginning of a weekend or the moment you walk into a meeting where they are serving cookies or your favorite trigger foods. Yoga interventions, practiced regularly, interrupt your body’s accumulation process and help your nervous system to continually choose the fork in the road toward the parasympathetic response. A yoga intervention may include yoga poses such as downward facing dog done with your hands up on the wall, on your desk, or your kitchen counter. Or a seated spine twist in your desk chair, on the floor, or on a park bench. Each of these helps you to drop your breathing back into your belly and to soothe your limbic brain.
- Outgrow the deprivation-reward mentality. This is the mentality that restricts calories as a body-or-appetite management strategy, or to ward off the likelihood of eating a “bad” food. However, the act of depriving yourself has very powerful effects on your brain and generates a strong kick-back reaction to indulge, or overindulge, as either a reward or as a necessary fuel-driven, brain-driven urgency. This kind of collapse into emotional eating can feel confusing and painful if you don’t realize that your brain is stimulating very specific responses to deprivation and that you aren’t just a person who lacks self-control.
About: Sarahjoy Marsh is a yoga therapist and educator with a master’s in counseling. She has been training yoga teachers and mental health providers in yoga therapy tools for 26 years. In her new book, Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food, Sarahjoy fuses yoga with psychology, neuroscience, breathing interventions, and mindfulness techniques, to bring readers with eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image issues a practical and accessible guide to recovery. Sarahjoy is a regular retreat teacher at Kripalu Yoga Center and Breitenbush Hot Springs and leads annual international yoga retreats to India. She maintains a thriving schedule of classes, teacher trainings, and private consults in Portland, OR. To visit Sarahjoy’s website, click here.