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How to work WITH your emotional eating

Read to me here:

Coping with food & mood in tough times

Your brain injury has come with all sorts of symptoms and by now you’ve likely rated them on a scale more than a handful if not a hundred times. Going down the list of your clinic’s symptom form, you may give a 5 for headaches, 3 for pressure in the head, 4 for sensitivity to noise… Then you get to those symptoms lower down on the list…

More emotional.

Irritability.

Sadness.

Nervous or Anxious.

How to even quantify those?

Our brains aren’t machines. Emotions aren’t so easily mapped out.

A number of you I’ve talked with tell me how even though you’re not really hungry, you find yourself “emotional eating.” You might say “I just have a problem with regulation of everything.” Or “I’ve never really had a sweet tooth, but when I’m feeling down now I’m just drawn to sugary foods.” Or “I just can’t stop. I eat beyond the point of fullness.”

You view this as a problem for a number of different reasons. Some of you tell me you don’t like this emotional eating because you heard sugar was “bad” for your brain. Some of you are concerned it’s impeding your recovery. Some of you tell me you can’t exercise so you’re worried the extra eating might turn into extra pounds.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that just the simple act of eating is not so simple. And I’m sorry that choosing to eat certain foods has come with so much stress. And I’m sorry that you can’t enjoy certain foods without feeling judged, as if your health were tied to your size, about to fall off the edge of a cliff…

But what if I told you your emotional eating wasn’t necessarily going to throw you off the edge? What if I told you this problem won’t necessarily make or break your recovery? And what if allowing yourself to eat was the key to keeping your body regulated?

Emotional eating is a term we have all come to think of as “bad.” But I would argue that a lot of the ways we eat are emotional in some way. How we eat often satisfies some emotion on some level. And if this is true, then we don’t need to judge emotional eating so harshly.

I know… this is getting kinda meta, but stick with me. It’s worth the cognitive exercise 🙂

You are going through a lot. Your life has been flipped upside down. You can’t do all the activities you used to do. You can’t work or study. You sometimes can’t even think straight or follow a conversation.

There is zero surprise that you would be feeling a wave of different emotions. And that wave can seem very hard to cope with.

What coping strategies do you currently have at your side? Maybe you’ve been taught some breathing techniques, been encouraged to do yoga, maybe even make lists of things you are grateful for… Hey, I’m no psychologist. I can’t tell you the best way for you to cope. But in my experience I know this: developing your coping muscle for excessively stressful times in your life takes work and may take time. You can’t expect in those dire moments, when you feel like you’re at rock bottom, to all of a sudden be able to do all the coping strategies that everyone around you deems as “healthy.”

No. Chances are you’re going to cope with excessively tough times with something more accessible and familiar to you. And sometimes that thing will be food.

Plus let’s not forget, you are in survival mode right now. You’re seeking out a safe place in a time of complete uncertainty. And depending on your history, especially if you’ve been through times of not having enough to eat, that safe place for you may be with food.

If you ask me if I ever emotionally eat to cope with tough times, my answer to you would be YES. I am privileged enough to work with a psychologist to strengthen my coping muscles, but I still use food as a tool at certain times. And it works for me. Why? Because if my choices are to eat some cookies in response to extreme stress OR berate myself, hate myself, and think about harming myself, which do you think has a better outcome on my overall quality of health?

To me, emotional eating isn’t a negative aspect of food. If we eat in response to sadness, we also eat in response to happiness! The feelings of gratitude we have at a special meal, the feelings of warmth and connectedness we experience when eating with others, the feelings of frustration we have when a recipe doesn’t work out… those are all emotions tied to eating too. They help you get meaning from your food and they help you make choices in the future that are right for you.

I’ve asked you a lot of questions today. I have some more 🙂 Trust that they are all important ♥️

What would happen if you changed your perspective of your emotional eating? How would things be different for you if you saw your emotional eating as a way you protect yourself from harm?

Would you then be able to let go of the judgement?

Would you then be able to make the coping strategy decision that is right for you in your tough moments?

Your emotional eating may be the best coping strategy you have if all else fails. And if your emotional eating is distressing you, knowing your history and having compassion for yourself, knowing that other factors influence your food choices is an important part of the healing process. Only with that can you work on other strategies to cope in a way that is in line with your health goals, whether that is with or without food.

It seems easier to quantify food than it is to quantify your emotions. But that doesn’t mean you need to use how much you eat against yourself. That symptom form you fill out at your clinic? Your symptom score is a guide in your recovery — it doesn’t at all define you as a person. The amount of food you eat is also a guide — it doesn’t at all indicate your worth as a human being.

So, what do you think? Do you need this perspective change? Send me a message. I’m happy to have this conversation with you.

Best in brain & food love,

Krystal Merrells

Registered Dietitian

PCS survivor

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