Let’s face it stress anxiety and depression are not usually treated with a fish fillet and a pile of steamed veg…in fact hundreds of clients I’ve worked with around psychology, eating and mood would tell you what they eat on the spur of an anxious moment, to fill an emotional void, or just as a stress/boredom reliever, is almost always the opposite of what would help with their long-term health goals.
We often, literally, eat our feelings and food/alcohol/caffeine are of course often used as rewards. We sometimes use food as something ‘for me’ when the rest of life is chaos and given over to things you feel are outside of your control. Diets often fail as they of course tend to be punitive in the sense that there are always rules to follow and involve some form of holding back, restricting and essentially, from a psychological point of view, curtailiment of our freedom… this then is the crux of the diet problem, humans do not like having their freedom curtailed.
Back in the 1960’s psychologist Jack Brehm carried out research and defined this notion which he describes as ‘reactance’. Let’s take the idea that you value the idea of the long-term benefits of a ‘healthy’ diet (for our purposes we’ll say high in vegetables, fruits and plant foods, grains, nuts, seeds, lean proteins and relatively low in high sugar and highly processed food) you value the idea and feel ideally (if you could achieve it) this would be the best thing for you. Then imagine I come along and say:
“you know, you really should make the switch and start to eat healthily, it would be much better for your health…”
What happens to you here? Instinctively you might start to think of all the reasons this change is difficult to make:
“I’m very busy/stressed at the moment it’s not as easy as just changing…’
The horrible irony with reactance is that even when pushing against an open door we can increase the likelihood someone will not take a positive action because we have attempted to push them towards it! Contrary lot aint we?
In practice (years of group weight management therapy in our long-standing small changes project) I can attest to how much we do not like, or respond well to being told what to do…
One way to go about looking at food and mood for yourself, is to use a food/mood tool- where you make a note, either physically or mentally, of what you are doing e.g.:
You are in charge here and the idea is not that people need to always avoid muffins! (you might however like the idea of avoiding your mood deciding what you eat and having a muffin top). The tool might help identify
how often you are eating certain things in relation to your mood. Often clients do this and relate clearly how mood effects their intake, my own binge tends to be Tim Tams (a superior form of a penguin biscuit if you’re from the Uk).
The other interesting point I hear from clients is where they say: ‘X (a person they are struggling with) does/says Y and I get angry at them… later dwelling on this they eat/drink something instantly gratifying to counteract their poor mood. With enough attention to this, these clients will also reflect ‘X is actually determining whether I drink/binge eat…’ Often this last reflection is the one that sparks a decision to make a change.
Eat slowly (I’m such a hypocrite)
Don’t eat ‘Al-desko’ go for a break and enjoy your lunch
Give yourself a break (i.e., don’t eat in response to an immediate urge- wait 10 minutes to help you decide if you really want it as a genuine cherished treat or whether it is an urge to soothe an emotional response)
Have a crack at mindful eating- noticing the smell, feel and taste of your food and eating slowly
Use ‘reflection’ before you act:
When I eat a whole packet of Tim Tams… it’s not because I have an energy deficit or a nutritional/physiological need for thousands of calories… asking myself what has happened (the trigger) in the time leading up to the response (binge/drink) is a good idea. Following this identifying any other behaviours which might better suit the situation (you decide but take a short walk, meditate, take a break and go and do some grounding breathing type exercise in the office bathroom.
This might take a few trials to really get going and maybe you’ll notice what’s going on but still not stop the binge, if this happens, forgive yourself, notice that you identified what happened to form the 'trigger-response' pairing and try again next time.
Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance.