Emotional eat-elligence

iCAP Services logoNews came to me that my Greek grandmother had suddenly passed away while I was working in Colorado many years ago.

I found myself in a foreign country without my support system of friends and family. These were the people with whom I could share my memories and grief.

I felt lost that particular day and of no use at work so I left early to be alone with my grief.

Unexpectedly, later that same day, an American friend I had met through work arrived on my doorstep carrying a huge bag full of lollies (candy to my dear friend) and scattered them onto the coffee table after I reluctantly invited her in. I really didn’t feel like company.

‘I brought these to cheer you up’, she said.

With little encouragement needed, we sat on the floor around the coffee table, unwrapped each treat and ate.

As I ate lolly after lolly, I described my sorrow at having not seen my grandmother for years, my regrets for not having made more frequent trips to visit her, and my happy memories of the woman I had only met on three occasions but whom I loved so dearly.

We did, after all, share the same name!

I sobbed, laughed and ate my way through the entire heap of sweets.

Back then, I credited my coping to the emotional eating that I had participated in.

Image of person eatingIs there a better way to cope with sadness other than to eat lots of lollies?

What about a stressful day? Chocolate with chocolate please!

You’re experiencing anger or fear? Have another drink to calm down!

How often have you swallowed your emotions — literally!

Have you ever felt uneasy about something and buried your head in the fridge or kitchen pantry to distract?

Origins of emotional eating

Swallowing your emotions, or ‘comfort eating’, has many origins; most of which could be traced back to childhood where emotional times were met with consumption.

  • Mimicking parents: As our most influential teachers, what do your parents do when faced with highly emotional situations? Dad may pour a stiff scotch, maybe a wine for mum or a cup of tea and cake to take the edge off bad news. Sad = food!
  • Rewarding with treats :For a job well done or improved school report, buy an ice-cream or a hamburger. I note that for some weekend children’s sports, the winning team and best and fairest player gets to go to the local fast food restaurant for free! Glad = food!
  • Temper tantrums: Out in public or in the home, bribing them with chocolate to stop the tears. Bad = food!
  • Family arguments: These may spill over into dinner time or escalate over dinner and even though tensions are high, you sit in silence, upset and eat everything on your plate. Mad = food!

If these or similar behaviours were part of growing up, what other emotionally intelligent ways might be used as a substitute to cope with feelings?

Alternatives to swallowing your emotions

  • Reach for a pen and paper instead of the biscuit tin. Write down what’s bugging you and why. Make a list of options and solutions if need be.
  • Walk off the worry or stress instead of eating it. A good walk or a punching bag session can relieve the tension of stress or anger with the added benefit of adding to your fitness.
  • Take time to relax by doing yoga, deep breathing, have a bubble bath or read a book.
  • Call a friend or talk to family about what’s bugging you. An emotion shared is an emotion released. Sharing your emotions and experiences can reduce the hold they have on you. As a counsellor, I often hear how much better clients feel after getting things off their chest.

Many years later, I realised that it wasn’t the lollies that soothed my emotions that sad day in Colorado, but the talking.

It was the time and attention of a friend that helped me. The sharing enabled my emotional clearing; not the emotional eating.

What’s your experience of emotional eat-elligence? Have you found other ways to deal with your emotions other than to swallow them?

Tina Pitsiavas is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist in private practice in Wollongong and Sydney.

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