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When Memories Trigger Painful Feelings and Food Binges
I talk a lot—I mean a lot—with clients about understanding how painful memories get triggered in the present. So many clients don’t realize they’re feeling anything distressing, yet find themselves in the midst of unrelenting binges. If you want to know how to prevent and stop emotional eating, here’s a brief review of the paradigm I use to stop mindless eating, overeating and binges due to painful emotions.
The truth is that most of the time we are not filled with surging, intense, raw feelings. Sure, things often go wrong—in small ways every day and in large ways occasionally. And sometimes stress or distress enters our lives through rarer yet events such as grave medical problems happening to us or our loved ones, evictions, firings, grave, serious accidents, natural disasters, or occurrences beyond our control. However, these may not be the events that cause people to eat emotionally. Think about the more common situations that trigger your mindless eating: upset at your partner or spouse, the kids, your boss, a co-worker, neighbor, or parent. Many people brush, shrug, or laugh off these low-level conflict situations, but they may upset you greatly—and, then, you’re off and running to the refrigerator.
You can stop this behavior by following these three steps:
- Identify a distressing feeling immediately. Or, if you’re eating when you’re not hungry, ask yourself what you’re feeling. Be specific and on the lookout for disappointment in yourself or others, confusion, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, inadequacy, fear of disapproval, guilt, shame, and helplessness. Without judging the emotion, note its intensity. You probably perceive it as pretty big if you’re thinking about turning to food for comfort or have already begun to eat.
- Attach the feeling to a situation or event in childhood when you felt this same emotional intensity. Stop and trace back when this was. Maybe your kids are screaming at each other now and your memory is stirred up about your parents frequent, frightening arguments back then. Maybe a disappointing, negative review by your boss now has sparked your memory of how Dad always criticized your report card back then, no matter how good your grades were. Scan your memory until you make the connection to whatever occurrence is at the root of your intense feelings.
- Comfort yourself by reminding yourself that you’re okay now and can handle whatever situation is distressing you. Use positive self-talk and a soothing tone. Repeat that you are fine and safe now. Consciously and gently detach from the memory by saying, “That was then and this is now,” “The past is over,” “I am strong and safe now.” And also by connecting to your senses to ground yourself in the present by focusing on what you see, smell, hear, and feel via touch.
In sum, use the I-A-C (Identify, Attach, Comfort) process whenever you have a strong feeling that is out of proportion to the current situation. How do you know it’s out of proportion? Any time you are seriously upset. Specifically, watch for the emotions listed above. Comfort yourself with the phrases I listed and use your senses to pin yourself to the present. Take three deep, long breaths and do whatever else calms you down.