emotional eating is “learned helplessness”

No one wants to feel “helpless”. We want to believe we are strong enough to handle any situation, and yet, we have a bad day and how do we cope? By stuffing our faces. One woman from a meeting I used to go to called it “getting fat at the problem”. We’re not confronting the person who hurt us. We’re not assessing the truth of the matter. And we’re certainly not solving anything. No, we’re self-destructing and wallowing in our little pit of helplessness.

I believe it was Josie Spinardi who said that people who use food to cope do so because they feel powerless to change their situation. So, instead of confronting, assessing, and solving the issue, they focus on “managing” their emotions. Most of the time this management involves an attempt to numb their feelings. Somewhere along their life, they learned that this is a fantastic way to avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with strong emotions. This is why it is called, “learned helplessness”. Now, if you fall into this category (like I did) this realization probably makes you want to cry into a bowl of Fruit Loops. But, my friend, that would be proving Josie’s point, now wouldn’t it?

The fact is, often times we are far from helpless to change our emotional state. We’ve just learned to stuff food in our mouths the moment we feel sad… or angry… or frustrated… or bored… or worried… or stressed… or hopeless… or rejected… or guilty… or betrayed… Yeah, that list could go on for a while. Now, if you’re hungry, by all means eat. But if you find that you’re eating for reasons other than hunger, odds are one of three things is happening:

  1. You’re still caught up in diet mentality and are bingeing as a result.
  2. You have some other unmet physical need (tired, thirsty, pain).
  3. You’ve learned to use food to cope with emotions.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? That’s because on paper it really is. Of course, once you start living the thing, it becomes a bit more complicated. We all know the feeling. Things are going along great. You’re eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough. You’re eating what you want and enjoying it. You can’t believe how free you feel. And then along comes Mr. Rain-on-your-parade. He could be anything from a strained relationship to the shock of filing taxes this year (yeah, still not over that one).

So, how do we combat this? Well, I’m glad you asked. So far, I’ve just been focused on neutralizing foods (giving myself permission to eat anything), ditching diet mentality, and of course dealing with the hypothyroid/adrenal fatigue stuff. Now I’m going to go after the emotional eating. I’m not going to tell myself that I’m not allowed to eat my emotions. Why? Because it’s all that “food rule” stuff that got me into this mess in the first place. No, I’m going to take a gentle approach of asking myself a series of questions… most of the time. If I don’t do it every time, that’s ok. I believe that if I can “learn” helplessness, then I can learn to react a different way with practice.

First, is to ask:

Are all my physical needs met?

If the answer is “no”, then I’ll ask what physical need do I have. Am I hungry? Am I tired? Am I in pain? Do I need affection? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then I have something I can physically address. See, we’re already taking action instead of helplessly going to the pantry for that bag of potato chips.

If all my physical needs appear to be met, then first I need to confront by asking:

What is really bothering me?

Just face it head on. Sit for a minute and see what comes to mind. I am finding that I’m amazed by the pettiness of some of the things that bother me. I mean really, I’m wanting to eat because the dog won’t quit following me around the house? Of course, you also have to ask, is it really about the dog or that I’m feeling overwhelmed because I’ve overextended myself and now this dog is following me around as if to say, “me too, don’t forget to put me on your to-do list!” Whatever it is, acknowledge it. Confront it.

Next you’ll assess the situation by asking:

Is this something I can do something about now or in the future?

Let’s face it, sometimes the things that upset us are things that we cannot fix. Coming to grips with that should go a long way toward letting go of the things you cannot change or prevent… instead of helplessly stuffing your face over the fear that someday a tornado might tear down your house because you just saw on the news that it happened somewhere in the world. Yes, that’s ridiculous, but hopefully you get what I’m saying.

There are times, though, when you can do something about it. Either way, the next step is to try to solve the problem:

What can I do to make the situation better, or at least help me feel better about it?

Sometimes our problems can be solved tangibly. Like for instance, you can tell your friend that her joke hurt your feelings. She apologizes, you both cry (or laugh), and all is good. You can stop procrastinating and finish that report already. You can decide to buy fewer designer handbags so you can pay your electric bill next month. You can get out of bed on time so that you aren’t late to work… again. You can stop reading novels that scare you to death and keep you up half the night.

But what if the problem is simply… emotional? What if there isn’t a tangible action because it can’t be “solved” per say. Or maybe it’s going to take a bit to solve the issue. I’m really angry that Uncle Sam is taking such a huge chunk of my family’s hard earned money, but I can’t do anything about that in the short-term. So how do I deal with the anger?

One tactic is to make a list of things you enjoy doing, or things that will diffuse the emotion. Yeah, it’s a bit of a distraction. And sometimes it’s just another form of comforting yourself, but at least you aren’t “getting fat at it” right? You’re caring for yourself rather than self-destructing with a binge that will do far more harm than good. Here are some things I’m putting on my list:

  • Talk to God… and listen
  • Read my Bible
  • Read some of my IE books (these are helpful if I’m stressing over diet mentality)
  • Talk to the Husband
  • Call someone
  • Write a nice note to someone (email, snail mail)
  • Do something for someone else (it could be that we’ve gotten too busy navel gazing and need a new perspective)
  • Write how I’m feeling in my journal
  • Clean something (this really helps me when I’m feeling frustrated and anxious)
  • Pick something from the to-do list and finish it.
  • Work on my novel
  • Get creative (art, sewing…etc)
  • Go for a walk
  • Sweet talk the Husband into giving me a massage
  • Sleep (never underestimate the power of a nap – many times fatigue will make a problem seem worse than it really is)
  • Sit with the emotion. (this is where you just let yourself feel the emotion completely and then you let it go… like I did with chocolate cake – ha ha).

Now, you may have noticed that TV isn’t on this list. Well, there is a reason for that. I don’t want to replace emotional eating with distracted eating, and right now it is very difficult for me to watch TV without some kind of food type item. So, if I’m going to watch TV, I accept that food is probably going to come with it for now. That’s a different part of the process though, and a discussion for another day.

For today, I hope this has made you think a bit about the emotional side of why you eat when you aren’t hungry. I’ve been told that it helps to have these questions and the list of ideas nearby so we can address the emotions before we passively eat ourselves into a non-feeling stupor. I’ve written it in a journal I keep on my desk. I’ve even thought about drawing something on my hand for when I’m out – to remind me to check in with my emotions and make sure they aren’t driving me where I don’t want to go.


2 thoughts on “emotional eating is “learned helplessness”

  1. Pingback: hunger unmasked: confusion | Brick by Brick

  2. Pingback: hunger unmasked: emotional situations | Brick by Brick

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