Stress is a huge contributing factor to emotional eating. It leaves us feeling overwhelmed, chaotic, and makes us reach for food to stuff down those uncomfortable feelings. The good news is there are some simple ways to self-soothe and get control during stressful times.
These tips can instantly reduce the emotional impact of a situation, helping you become less reactive and less prone to giving in to your unconscious urges. Some of the positive impacts this can make are:
- Developing the ability to step back and evaluate the situation from a more positive and empowered perspective
- Becoming detached from your emotions and thoughts (you are experiencing an emotion, but you are not the emotion)
- Disallowing your emotions to guide your behaviors
I. Breathe Low: One Minute to Stop a Panic Attack
This breath-focused technique effectively relaxes the stress response and stimulates inner calm and control.
When you are stress-breathing (shallow, rapid breaths), you’re inhaling more carbon dioxide. This stimulates brain stem carbon dioxide receptors which can send you from a state of anxiety into a panic attack because the brain thinks it’s suffocating. Your thoughts alone didn’t cause the panic attack; shallow, rapid breathing tipped the scales from anxiety to full on panic.
Deliberately deepening and slowing your breathing signals the brain that everything is okay. Your mind initially influenced your breath, making it shallow and rapid. Now you can use your body to influence your mind! Here’s what to do:
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, concentrating on filling your lower lungs first and then your upper lungs. Feel your abdomen rise before your chest rises. Begin with your hand on top of your belly button.
- Hold your breath to the count of three.
- Exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth while relaxing the muscles in your face, jaw, and shoulders. Make the “shhhh” or “haaaa” sound to further stimulate relaxation.
- Continue the process by filling your lower lungs before filling your upper lungs, and relaxing deeply with each exhale.
II. Third Eye Open: One Minute to Stop Racing Thoughts
It might seem impossible to stop racing thoughts but you can do it, anytime, in less than a minute.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine your third eye, a point just above and between your eyebrows. With your eyes closed and while breathing deeply, gently roll your eyes upward and inward, focusing on the third eye. Do not strain, just gently hold your focus there. You will notice that your thoughts will slow. They may even stop completely. Enjoy this blissful silence for as long as you like! Even a single minute is plenty of time to break a chain of upsetting thoughts. When you feel calmer, open your eyes and move on with your day.
With practice, you can maintain complete and blissful mental silence for as long as you want. In this thought-free space, there is nothing to make you feel bad about yourself!
III. Ride the Wave: 90 Seconds to a Better Response
Every day, you experience a variety of emotions. Most of them come and go. The problem is rumination. When you slip into a groove of upsetting thoughts, it can seem like there’s no way out, no way to get control, and no way to stop feeling terrible.
First, a quickie primer on emotions:
- “Negative” emotions are just as important as “positive” emotions. Without “negative” emotions, life would be without perspective. Without knowing sadness, you could never appreciate joy. Without experiencing fear, you could never understand confidence.
- Emotions are simply electrochemical reactions to stimuli. The emotional reaction to a stimulus (whether it’s through your senses or your thoughts) depends on cognitive processing. It depends on how you interpret the situation.
- The primary emotions of fear, pleasure, anger, sadness and disgust are evolutionary adaptations designed to drive behavior away from pain and toward pleasure. However, just because you experience an emotion doesn’t mean you must act on it.
- Emotions are by nature transient (one takes the place of another, to provide contrast and perspective). If you don’t dwell on what generated the emotion, the emotion will pass and you’ll regain a sense of equilibrium.
- When you remember the raw data of an event, you automatically remember the emotional significance you assigned to it at the time. However, this is not a permanent interpretation. You can change it. A person who has always been fearful of cats because they were scratched as a child, can learn to love cats. A person who was deeply in love and saw their partner through the proverbial “rose colored glasses” can develop a completely different emotional interpretation of that person after a bad breakup.
The cycle for upsetting thoughts is: Upsetting thought >> negative emotion >> more upsetting thoughts >> more negative emotions >> impulsive emotionally-driven behavior.
Here’s how you can stop it in 90 seconds or less.
- The moment you feel a strong emotion coming on, immediately bring your full attention to it. Experience the emotion. You’re perfectly safe doing this! It’s just a bunch of neurotransmitters and hormones temporarily coursing through your body.
- Be 100% in the moment. What does this emotion feel like in your body? Which muscles tense up? Are your palms sweaty? Does your heart race? Does your chest constrict. Do you feel a pit in your stomach? Do your eyes tear up?
- Focus intently on the experience of the emotion until it subsides. Do not allow your attention to go to the source of the emotion (the thoughts you had about your ex/job/health/mother-in-law/whatever).
- This whole process takes 90 seconds or less, even if the emotion is really intense. Stay with it until it passes. Take a deep cleansing breath and you’ll feel calmer and more centered.
- Congratulate yourself! You didn’t make a snap decision, or give in to impulses, and you didn’t do or say something regrettable.
- With practice you’ll calmly experience any emotion and minimize its impact. It’s just an electrochemical reaction, an experience. Like everything, it will pass.
These techniques can be used in any stressful situation or anytime you feel like you’re not in control. You can’t control the situation, but you can control your response to it. With a little practice, you’ll gain amazing self-mastery, confidence, and self-esteem!
Riding the wave of emotions: Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor, My Stroke of Insight
Carbon dioxide and panic, and the neurobiology of emotions: http://www.neuroanatomy.wisc.edu/coursebook/neuro5(2).pdf
Breathing to self-soothe: