Written by Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD at Green Mountain at Fox Run
Perhaps the most common struggle we hear among the women who come to Green Mountain at Fox Run is emotional eating. These women aren’t particularly unique. Emotional eating has become the wolf hiding behind the bush, ready to jump out at most people who struggle with their weight.
There are a number of reasons for this but they all boil down to one big reason: stress.
The Power of Chronic Stress Triggers
Stress is no stranger to most of us.
And some of it is good. A little bit of stress can help energize us, motivating us to get things done. It also serves as a warning system – the famous fight or flight syndrome that signals the body to produce hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol to help focus and give us energy us when we need to avoid danger.
Problems arise, however, when the stress turns chronic. We get stuck in fight, flight or even freeze, unable to effectively manage the real or perceived dangers that come our way.
These days, a lot of the dangers are perceived, especially for women who struggle with weight, including:
This last fear leads to an all-too-common stressor – dieting, or restricting what you eat to lose weight.
This creates a push-pull relationship with food that has both physical and psychological consequences in the form of unsupportive eating and feelings of deprivation, guilt and failure.
The ultimate consequence, however, is that food ends up as the go-to for women who struggle with weight as their bodies demand it to meet basic needs and their minds demand it for emotional solace.
What’s Stress Got to Do With Weight?
If we’re eating to manage stress regularly, we will likely be eating when we’re not hungry. That means we’ll be taking in more food than our bodies need.
Of course, that can lead to weight gain. But there’s another way stress affects weight.
When we’re stressed, we’re in survival mode.
Our bodies’ evolutionary response is to hold onto energy (aka calories) so we can survive. For example, back in prehistoric days when we were escaping tigers (or other, equally deadly carnivores), we needed energy to run.
Hormonal changes occur that increase our appetite and tell our bodies to store fat. These changes optimize chances of survival in a life-or-death situation. Our bodies can’t necessarily tell if it is a life or death situation so chronic, lower-grade stress causes our bodies to react in the same way.
What’s the remedy? In the face of stressors, shift into the relaxation response.
The most efficient way to do that is through breath work. Take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling stressed. Maybe a few minutes after a heated exchange, or in the midst of a stressful day.
To build better access to your relaxation response, consider taking time regularly during the day to do some deep breathing. Even if it’s five minutes at the start and end of your day.
Ending the Cycle of Emotional Overeating
So deep breathing is one step in the process of getting off the hamster wheel of eating and weight struggles. Another step is to become more mindful.
Mindfulness is quite the rage these days because it offers a real way to change our attitudes, thoughts and behaviors.
That’s because we begin to pay attention to what’s going on in the moment. It allows us the leave the past behind, bring more perspective to the current situation, and worry less about the future.
For many women who struggle with weight, emotional eating has become a habit, engrained in their brains through neural pathways that deepen each time we emotionally eat. Over time, like any habit, it becomes our automatic reaction to certain stressors.
In the middle of a hectic day, when we walk past the candy jar on our office mate’s desk, we automatically, without thinking, reach for something to sweeten our day.
Then the tapes start running: I shouldn’t have eaten that. It’s not good for me. I’ll never lose weight this way. I blew it. I might as well eat more. And forget about that meal I was going to cook later. I’ll just stop at the drive-thru on the way home.
The practice of mindful eating can change those habits and tapes.
In the middle of a hectic day, when we walk past the candy jar on our office mate’s desk, we think before we take a piece of candy. Do I really want it? Is it really going to help me, or is it going to add stress on top of stress? What can I do that will really add some sweetness to this moment?
Sounds simple, and it can be. But just like the habit of emotional eating, we need to develop the habit of mindful eating. Here’s how to do it.
3 Steps to Manage Emotional Eating
When the urge to eat strikes, walk through these steps.
Step 1: Take a breath.
This is the essence of mindful eating. When you pause before diving in, you can become more connected to how you’re feeling and what you are thinking.
Step 2: Ask yourself, “am I hungry?”
Check in with your hunger cues. If you are hungry, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.
Step 3 If you’re not hungry – ask yourself, “what’s up?”
What am I thinking? Feeling? And most importantly, Am I willing to try an alternative first before turning to food to self-soothe?
An alternative to food can be anything that is soothing to you – some deep breathing, a cup of tea, a bath, calling a friend, drawing, reading, playing music, etc.
If you’re not willing to find an alternative and just want to eat, then…well…eat.
But eat mindfully – and again, check in with your cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.
Remember that it’s ok to eat emotionally; food can definitely be a coping tool. But to use food as an effective coping tool, we want to use it in a way that truly helps us feel better. If we use it too often, it doesn’t do that.
A Word About Meditation
A regular meditation practice can be key to becoming a skilled mindful eater, and improving stress & emotional resilience.
The benefits of meditation are many. In particular, it has a lot to offer when it comes to stress and emotional eating. By regularly meditating, you can find you focus better as anxiety levels drop and you become less impulsive.
It can also improve self-esteem, resilience, and optimism while it helps you relax.
However, many people react negatively to the idea of meditation: “I don’t have time for that.” “I can’t sit still that long.” Our 5-Minute Meditation series is just the thing to help you begin this practice. It can help to schedule a regular time to meditate daily. Morning, before all the rush begins, works well for many people.
With a regular mindfulness practice (whether that be meditation, breathing, or something else) we often find less negative emotion associated with the challenges and stressors we face, and with that comes better emotion regulation and happier hormone activity within our bodies.
All that adds up to less stress, which typically means feeling less depressed, anxious, sad or frustrated – and, therefore, less likely to eat emotionally as a result of the chronic stress in our lives.
This article was originally published as Stress = Emotional Eating: The All-Too-Common Equation at www.fitwoman.com on January 19, 2017.
By Gregory Holich, MS, LPC, DBT Specialist, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
Eating disorders are multi-faceted and highly complex diseases; as such, multiple treatment strategies are recommended to help an individual fully recover.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a recovery tool designed to help people recognize the ability to create a meaningful life for themselves, regardless of past challenges. The goal of creating a meaningful life complements other strategies by creating a framework in which a person can be set free from an eating disorder and go on to live a balanced, healthy and productive life.
The dialectic in DBT is that acceptance and change can exist simultaneously. DBT is particularly effective in treating those who have experienced repeated relapses of self-harm, eating disorders and co-occurring emotional illnesses.
The four primary aspects of DBT skills training include:
When people engage in DBT they are asked to consider how they would define living a meaningful life. A response could be as simple as “living a life where I don’t have to binge and purge,” or “living a life free from calorie counting.” The fascinating aspect of this initial response is that this definition often expands and changes as these individuals progress through treatment. As they heal from their disorder, they often broaden their definition of a meaningful life to include the possibility of a more expansive career, future love relationships or the advent of children in their lives.
They are encouraged to develop an understanding of the tenants of DBT and start practicing the skills right away. Mindfulness is perhaps the most important, in that the other components naturally stem from this state. People practice slowing down, being present and living in the moment. For many this is extremely challenging, since they have utilized their eating disorder to numb their minds and escape from their personal, painful lives.
It is important for people to return to a life that includes emotion while in therapy. Many have existed in a feeling-free world for so long, it is genuinely difficult for them to recognize an emotion when it presents itself. Since these feelings are often unpleasant, and they can no longer rely on unhealthy behaviors to vanquish them, they must learn and practice the skills of emotion regulation and distress tolerance. They soon discover that emotions, though difficult, are not lethal, and that they, through their own power, can choose how to react and cope.
The fourth component of DBT, interpersonal effectiveness, is crucial to learn and practice. This tool is designed to help people in recovery get their needs met in a way that is respectful to both themselves and others.
Once learned, the skills associated with DBT can be taken from the therapy setting and back into the real-world environment where they can be used to sustain recovery.
Written by Matt Bartlett, Executive Director – Saratoga Springs Campus, New Haven Residential Treatment Center
The world we live in can often be challenging. Many of us deal with the pressure and stress of everyday life in different ways. Sometimes the simple task of watching the news or scrolling through social media can trigger anxiety or bring back memories of trauma that hinder progress.
The impact of trauma on adolescents can be life changing and devastating to overall healthy functioning. Living in a world with heightened emotions, anxiety, and constant threat as a result of the trauma hijacks the brain from normal usage and development.
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter the sense of security, making individuals feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Trauma can take over the daily routines of an individual and handicap them socially and emotionally.
Expertly trained therapists at New Haven Residential Treatment Center follow key strategies to treat and reduce the impact of trauma. By creating a safe environment, students are able to share the traumatic experience through narrative which allows exposure and extinction. While painful, this narrative is similar to “cleaning a wound”. Words and pictures must be shared. Through sharing, processing, and describing the events, the memories created around the traumatic experience can be reduced to a memory rather than a guiding force. Relaxation and meditation are taught so the individual can identify and modulate feelings. Other approaches include cognitive techniques such as thought stopping, positive self-talk, reviewing safety plans, enhancing social skills and problem solving for dealing with triggers.
As the impact of the trauma memory is reduced, new connections are made in the brain. Newly formed neurons are wired together which counter the devastating effects of traumatic experiences. As an individual heals from the traumatic experience, they can re-write the narrative and not let the trauma control life.
Written by Clementine adolescent treatment program Dietitian Alyssa Mitola, MS, RD, LD/N. Alyssa works closely with the adolescents at Clementine Miami Pinecrest to gain a more positive relationship with food. In her post, Alyssa shares some insight in the education and support given to the adolescents while on the path to full recovery.
You just need to lose a little weight.” “Eat healthier.” “We need to put you on a diet.” Countless of our clients with BED have endured comments such as these by friends, family, and even medical professionals. Many of our adolescents with BED arrive with significant “diet histories.” Even at the age of 16 we have had clients who have been on diets for over 10 years. How has that impacted them? The eating disorder often gets overlooked due to the focus on body weight and the false notion that restricting the diet is the only way to improve health
All too often weight alone is used to determine “what” or “how” a person should eat. Foods are classified as “good” foods and “bad” foods. However, this misunderstanding of nutrition fails time and time again. This message often leads our clients to feel like a failure because they are unable to follow the “diet” prescribed.
Here at Clementine we recognize that weight is not the only indicator of health. When a client walks through our doors we do not cut out foods, but in fact encourage the client to re-introduce the foods they may have been previously told to “cut” out. At first this can be extremely scary for our clients and parents. Blaming the type of food has been engrained into their way of life. But as we slowly heal this relationship with food, the fear is reduced and overall health improves. Numerous times we have seen improvements in LDL (bad cholesterol) and fasting insulin levels independent of weight loss. The labs improve while this client continues to eat a variety of foods. When we begin to heal the relationship with food, we see improvements that others often think can only be achieved on a restricted diet.
This work is only started here at Clementine. Our clients continue to cultivate their relationship with food and their bodies when they return home. However, our clients can leave with improved markers of health even when the focus is not the weight. Let’s stop blaming the individual food and start looking at the power this food may wield over our children. Whether a dietitian, nurse, teacher, friend, parent, we must be careful about the nutrition information we disseminate. As we shift the talk away from weight loss and restrictive nutrition recommendations, we can start talking about our relationship with food. When we are solely focused on the number on the scale we forget that health cannot simply measured by a number.
This article originally posted on the Clementine Blog (http://clementineprograms.com/2016/11/15/cultivating-a-positive-relationship-with-food/).
For more information about Clementine adolescent treatment programs, please call 855.900.2221, visit our website, subscribe to our blog, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
To visit or tour a Clementine locations with one of our clinical leaders please reach out to a Clementine Admissions Specialist at 855.900.2221.
REQUEST: STRIPED, MEDA, and NEDA urge state leaders to protect the young people of Massachusetts from the dangers of diet pills and muscle-building supplements. A new bill, which will be introduced in 2017, will aim to address this issue. If passed, this bill will ban the sale of diet pills and muscle-building supplements to minors under 18 years old and will move these products behind the counter, requiring consumers to request them directly from a pharmacist, manager, or other store supervisory personnel.
STEPS MASSACHUSETTS CAN TAKE TO PROTECT ITS YOUTH
1) PROHIBIT SALE TO MINORS. Massachusetts can prohibit the sale of diet pills and muscle-building supplements to minors under the age of 18 years. Due to their developmental stage, youth may be unable to weigh the harms linked with these products.
2) MOVE PRODUCTS BEHIND THE COUNTER. Moving diet pills and muscle-building supplements from the shelves to behind the counter will ensure that consumers will first speak with a pharmacist, manager, or other store supervisory personnel.
3) URGE THE ATTORNEY GENERAL. The Massachusetts Legislature can urge the State Attorney General to enforce consumer protection statutes that prohibit unfair or deceptive advertising of diet pills and muscle-building supplements.
4) EDUCATE CONSUMERS. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health can educate consumers about the health risks associated with dietary supplements sold for weight loss and muscle building, as well as the risks associated with misuse and abuse of over-the-counter diet pills.
Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders
Boston Children’s Hospital
Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine
300 Longwood Avenue, LO306
Boston, MA 02115
Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association
288 Walnut Street, Suite 130
Newton, MA 02460
National Eating Disorder Association
165 West 46th Street, Suite 402
New York, NY 10036