Will I ever improve at soothing myself without food?

Will I ever improve at soothing myself without food?

The truth is, although you might wish to have these self-calming skills, the issue is not about desire but instead about how hard you are willing to work to become proficient at them.

The truth is, although you might wish to have these self-calming skills, the issue is not about desire but instead about how hard you are willing to work to become proficient at them.

by Karen R. Koenig — 

It is true that emotional eaters generally turn to food when their feathers are ruffled, and they do not practice more effective ways to smooth them out. Several reasons for this exist. Studies on temperament reveal that some people may actually be more emotionally sensitive than others, owing to genetic tendencies involving neurotransmitter imbalances, among other things.

We all recognize that some folks are simply born sunnier and more upbeat than others. That is due to hard wiring. Moreover, how our childhood role models, primarily our caretakers, soothed themselves is a strong predictor of how we will soothe ourselves. Our parents cannot teach us what they did not know how to do.

If dad stormed off in a huff to his basement workshop and mom made a beeline for the refrigerator every time they had a tiff, we witnessed two approaches to handling emotions — neither of which shows great competence or effectiveness.

I will say that, culturally, women seem to reach out while men seem to withdraw, and this is part of our evolutionary heritage. In the days of the cave dwellers, out on a hunt for food with the guys was not the time or place to be complaining about the kids misbehaving and driving you crazy.

How much easier it was for women sitting around the fire tending to those very children to start gabbing about them. Sadly, since cave dweller times, the strong, silent male and the overly emotional female have remained cultural stereotypes, and we, as both children and adults, absorb their characteristics and frailties without realizing it.

Moreover, when you are upset, it is so easy these days to turn to food that people often do not even try to develop effective skills to cope with feelings and comfort themselves. To do so means unlearning “I-feel-therefore-I-eat” behaviors and acquiring skills that involve a good deal of practice.

The truth is, although you might wish to have these self-calming skills, the issue is not about desire but instead about how hard you are willing to work to become proficient at them. They absolutely will not become part of your repertoire simply because you lay yourself down to sleep and pray for them. Rather they will become more integral to your coping strategies the more you put attention on and repeat them.

The problem with acquiring these skills, instead of grabbing a sweet or other treat, is that at first you may not find them particularly helpful. The frustration of learning new methods of self-care can generate hopelessness and helplessness. You might even believe that you will never learn how to comfort yourself or relax without food, even if you were to live three lifetimes.

You may practice these skills a few times and give up, or use them at times and turn to food at other times, so that you are not making true progress. Remember, mastery comes from doing the new behavior more times than the old one — many, many more times, I might add. The truth is, if you do any behavior often enough, you will lay down new neural pathways in your brain and it will become habit.

Here are some basic ways to calm down and soothe yourself without food. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; scores of books are available that can give you detailed advice on the subject. There is no shortage of helpful information out there to be gained through psychotherapy (individual or group), support groups, workshops, podcasts, message boards and even apps.

That said, to unwind or comfort yourself, you can learn and practice the following to replace unwanted eating.

• In the physical arena: To relax your body, drink a cup of tea; take a bath or shower; close your eyes and take a nap; do neck rolls; take a walk, swim or ride a bike; get up and dance or do kickboxing; do catlike stretches; sit quietly and visualize a happy scene from your life. You can walk the dog or play with the cat; practice yoga; do a relaxation progression from toe to head; massage your temples, scalp or any tense spots on your body; get regular massages; garden or do light chores; rock in a chair or a hammock; or (my favorite) do deep breathing.

• In the sensual arena: To awaken your senses other than taste, light a scented candle and inhale the aroma; go outside and smell flowers or freshly mowed grass; play music you love; rub cream all over your body; immerse yourself in a book of photography or watch a video of exotic places; look through magazines that bring you visual pleasure; or pet the dog or the cat.

• In the mental arena: To relax by enlivening your thoughts and rejuvenating your energy, browse through a joke book; check out humorous videos; watch a funny sitcom; engage in a hobby or passion; read a book that is a page-turner; surf the web; check your email; turn on the history, science or nature channel; or teach yourself something new.

• In the emotional arena: For self-soothing, say compassionate, kind, caring things to yourself; reread a loving letter from someone; develop and repeat a mantra about your lovability; give yourself a hug. Curl up in a fetal ball and cry; call someone who will help you feel better; tell yourself that your mood or the crisis will pass.

If you made a mistake, remind yourself that you are allowed to make them; acknowledge that you are feeling bad, but remind yourself that this does not mean there is anything wrong with you; picture a strong, bright candle within you that burns with self-love; or write a love letter to yourself.


Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, is the author of Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems, as well as five other books about eating and weight. A psychotherapist, eating coach and speaker, she has been working with troubled eaters for more than 30 years. karenrkoenig.com. 

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 5, October/November 2015.


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