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What to do instead of eat when you’re in emotional turmoil

Everyone does it at some stage in life. Others do it more often.

What is it? It is "emotional eating".

Covid-19 has driven a LOT of EMOTIONAL eating and drinking. You are not alone if you've hit the fridge and pantry more than usual.

Food is such an easy neutral friend when your emotions are topsy turvy, when you've got time on your hands, and when time is stretched to the limit.

Stresses at work. Pressures at home. Sad news. Feeling low. Feeling disappointed. Feeling out of control. Sense of anxiety. Feeing lonely. Watching sad and bad things unfolding on the TV news. These are negative emotions and feelings but for some, emotional eating isn’t always due to negative feelings. You may eat more with pleasant emotions. Extreme joy. In love. Feeling free.

There are many triggers for emotional eating.

Sometimes you may not even realise that emotions trigger eating. Without a second thought, you reach into the fridge or pantry or stop by the drive-thru to buy something nice on the way home from work.

Emotional eating means that you’re probably not tummy hungry at all but food seems to ‘fix you’. That ‘fix’ is not long lasting and it can turn to bite you back with added feelings of disappointment, failure and guilt.

Emotions are not bad things. How you react to your emotions is more critical. In the long term, you want to find how to better deal with the way you react to and respond to your emotions and the triggers behind them. In the short term, right here and now, you want to find a fix that takes your mind away; a fix that’s not going to interrupt your quest for a healthier, comfortable body.

To help the new fix work, it’s best to:

  • Make it immediate. If you have to make an appointment or go out and buy something in order to do it then it’s not a good option. You don’t want any obstacles in the way.
  • Make is easy to start. If you think it will take too much effort to get started, that won’t work either. If you have to search through the cupboard to find it or clear a space before you can start on it, it won’t happen.
  • Make it automatic. Make a list of your solutions to emotional eating and keep it posted on your fridge/pantry door ready for those ‘crisis times’ when you usually reach for food. Quickly scan the list and find something to do without stopping to think.

Ideas to get you started:

This is just a starting list of things to do instead of eating when you’re in emotional turmoil. This will get you thinking so be sure to start your own list right away.

  1. Build a complex jigsaw puzzle. This will keep you seriously distracted plus you won’t want to eat or drink for fear of wrecking the puzzle. Make a space in your place where you can keep the jigsaw out and ready to grow.
  2. Solve some brainteasers. Whether it’s sudoko, crosswords or other puzzles is up to you. My suggestion is that you try and do it the old-fashioned way (paper and pencil) off-screen, away from the computer and smartphone, and away from your usual chair. Changing where you sit can help you reduce how much you eat and drink. Using your brain keeps your thoughts away from wanting to eat.
  3. Find a hands-on hobby and work on a ‘project’ – wood carving, sculpting, sketching, painting, sewing, knitting, felting, knotting (macrame), crochet, and leather working. Using your hands makes it harder to eat. Keep your hobby ‘project’ out so you are inspired to return to it and show it off. Once you are absorbed in the project, you won’t have time to give food a second thought.
  4. Indulge in yourself with some "me time". Head into the garden or shed. Experiment with a new look. Put your make-up on in a different way. Do your hair in a new style. Put on a facial. Take a long soaking bath. Guys, groom the mo' or reshape the beard. It is okay, in fact it’s really good to treat yourself nicely.
  5. Learn a foreign language on-line or by recordings. My mum taught me it is rude to speak and eat at the same time! Did yours?
  6. Plan a virtual holiday and work towards making it real. Research the holiday destination and explore the country via the web or books. Train with a virtual walk.
  7. Read a book of inspirational and motivational quotes - keep the book somewhere very handy (perhaps in the toilet?!). This is something to help even out or lift you up out of unhappy feelings.
  8. Revel in some childish fun. Blow some bubbles. Package your best wishes, thoughts, fears and worries into the first few bubbles and send them away. After that, just play! Make your own adult-strength bubble mix with detergent and water.
  9. Practice handwriting with your ‘wrong’ hand. If you’re right-handed, try writing left-handed. If you’re a leftie, switch to your right hand. It takes a lot of concentration to perfect handwriting and keeps your thoughts focused on the pen and paper rather than drifting off to anywhere else.
  10. Do something valuable if you are feeling somewhat helpless and sad at watching another person’s plight:
    • Sort through your wardrobe and drawers. Donate any quality and usable clothes, shoes and goods to someone who needs them. How about clothes and belts that no longer fit because you’ve shaped up so well? Maybe it really is time to give away the cot and pram to a new mum who will use it rather than have it clogging up your spare room?
    • Turn to the storage cupboards. Pull out items that you haven’t used in ages (make that 9 months). Put them aside to donate onwards. Other people might find a use for good stuff that you no longer need or use. Be ruthless with your decisions.
    • Ask yourself: do you really need to double up on pots and pans, have a few different dinner sets and various other items? One positive to come out of the Brisbane floods for some of my clients was that the home kitchen was stripped bare and replaced with only the bare essentials. Others who were unaffected, gifted their excess kitchen equipment to emergency support organisations who forward the items on to disaster victims. You don't have to wait for a disaster to strike. Charitable organisations are always looking for useful items in good condition. To declutter and tidy your surroundings may boost your mood and help sort and declutter unhelpful thoughts from your brain.
    • Recycle old blankets and sheets that are not good enough to give to someone else – perhaps an animal shelter could use them or they could be torn up into clean-up rags?

Remember, this is just a starting list to get you thinking. Write in your own ideas ready for the next time you find your emotions are tricking you to eat.

A psychologist will help you tackle the emotional eating with advanced techniques and skills. If simple distraction isn’t helping, ask for help from the experts.

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