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Picture this: You’ve just raced out of a burning house and are still reeling from your narrow escape. Shaking and shivering, your heart is pounding, you can’t catch your breath, and thoughts are pinging around your head. Your nervous system is wildly dysregulated. So, would this be a good time to do a mental de-briefing about the fire’s origins or ways you might have prevented it? Of course not.
After, fleeing that burning house, your first job is to get your emotional system to register that you’re safe and out of danger. To do this, you need soothing words and a gentle, comforting tone, a way to signal to your nervous system that all is well. You need to settle down, the same way a pot of boiling water requires time to stop bubbling away when you turn off the heat. This return to stasis won’t happen if you immediately launch into self-talk analyzing what happened and if you were at fault. The best and fastest way to re-regulate is to tenderly soothe your distraught nervous system until it calms down.
What does all this have to do with eating? Plenty. When we get emotionally upset, we too often fall into self-analyzing—why we said what we said or why someone did what they did—before we’re calm enough to even think straight. Ironically, all that analysis and those attempts at rational understanding only keep us focused on the cause of our distress. If you’ve ever tried talking with a three-year old jumping up and down or whirling around, you know you need to get him or her to stop moving if you want attention paid to what you’re saying. This is how the nervous system works.
We must calm down before we can process information and calming down is exactly where dysregulated eaters lack skills. It’s not your fault. You may have spent your childhood in high-affect laden situations, bouncing from crisis to crisis. Maybe you didn’t have parents who could self-calm or help you soothe your anxiety. Instead, they either launched into angry or frightened tirades which only upset you more or admonished you to behave differently, instruction which went in one ear and out the other but rattled you along the way. And today this is how you react when you’re emotionally distressed.
The first step after upset is always immediate emotional first-aid. Touch and tone are crucial for re-regulation. Sweet, kind, loving words about safety and everything being okay are what you need to hear—you’re fine, everything’s alright, you’re going to be okay, you did the best you could, etc. It helps to hug yourself, stroke your arms lovingly, or rock back and forth. Only when your system has returned to stasis will you be emotionally and physically ready to delve into, reflect on, or gain insight about what caused your upset. You’ve been using food to do a job—emotional re-regulation—that is far better done by self-nurturance. Develop ways to calm yourself immediately after distress and you’ll have an easier time avoiding emotional eating.
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