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Brain Food Column Month Twelve: With feeling

In the final instalment of Psychologies’ Brain Food column, Amerley Ollennu looks back over her efforts in the last 12 months to help change the way we think about food once and for all

by Psychologies

feel your feelings

What a year this has been. Through the highs and the lows, this challenge to change the way I think about and use food has put me on a path of self-discovery and, as we all know, knowledge is power. ‘It’s not unusual for peopleto feel that self-reflection and contemplation are a little self-indulgent.

Our British sensibility has a “just get on with it” attitude  engrained within that often leaves us detached from ourselves,’ sayspsychotherapist Sophie Boss, one of the women behind Beyond Chocolate, the UK’s leading no-diet community.

The challenge

After months of therapy, nothing was more productive for me than working with the Beyond Chocolate team. Sophie specialises in diet psychology, and my one-on-one sessions with her quickly got to the crux of my issues, which were complex indeed.

Like all emotional eaters, I tend to push down my emotions so that I don’t have to actually feel them and, although I’ve been working on speaking up, I still find that I get uncomfortable expressing myself when I am angry, sad or annoyed. Instead, I attempt to ignore my feelings or try to rationalise them.

Sophie challenged me to feel my feelings and realise that the world wouldn’t come to an end if I did. The perfectionist in me wasn’t so sure. I’m incredibly self-critical and, for an emotional eater, the more self-critical you are, the more you will eat as a way of dealing with the disappointment you feel towards yourself.

‘Eating to avoid a feeling you’re not comfortable with or can’t change comforts, but then leaves us with something to feel bad about – the eating – which we tell ourselves we can change. So our eating is also about power and powerlessness,’ believes Sophie.

The experience

Although I’d worked on all of this during the year, I realised that at times of acute stress, my default setting was still to shut down, which soon resulted in me feeling out of tune with myself. So when Sophie asked me how I was feelingat the beginning of each session, it took some coaxing for me to properly figure it out.

Mostly I felt anxious all the time – about what I was eating, about my relationships with others, my career and my future.

A session with food coach Audrey Boss (Sophie’s sister), highlighted this even further. She asked me what I thought a healthy meal consisted of. I answered, ‘fish and vegetables’. Of course, there are lots of other healthy foods I could have mentioned, but in that moment, those were the only ones I could think of that didn’t come with conditions (yes to fruit, no to fruit juice; yes to carbohydrates but no to all refined versions… and so it goes on).

Audrey pointed out that unless I’m eating those two things, then I don’t believe I’ve eaten well and am more than likely to feel anxious when eating anything else. This resonated loud and clear, and was the wake-up call I needed.

The result

Over the past 12 months what I’ve learnt is that there are no quick fixes when it comes to emotional eating. It has taken years for me to get into the habit of comfort-eating as a crutch, and this year is just the beginning of makinga lifelong change in the other direction. I understand now that there are many other ways in which I can deal with my emotions, and not because I want to look a certain way but because I want to feel a certain way – happy.

More inspiration:

Sophie Boss, psychotherapist, author and co-founder of Beyond Chocolate, says the first step to combating emotional eating is to deal with our feelings

  1. FEEL IT. Experiment with choosing to feel the emotion rather than eating it away. We can tell ourselves to just let it go, but when making sense of it doesn’t alleviate the feeling, the only way to move beyond it is to ride the emotions like a series of waves until they die down and disappear. When you stop fighting feelings, you may find they come and go quite quickly. You don’t have to wallow in them; start small. Set a timer for a few minutes. Stamp your feet, cry into your pillow, but when the time is up, stop, then see if you want more time and repeat if necessary. Keep going until you’ve had enough.
  2. EXPLORE IT. Putting your feelings into words or pictures can be helpful in making sense of what can feel like an impenetrable tangle of thoughts and emotions. Doing something where you can vent, reflect, or question what you’re feeling, instead of shutting yourself off and turning to food, can provide helpful insights and even closure.
  3. SHARE IT. Sometimes feelings are big and scary, and sharing them with someone who cares or who has the professional skills to offer guidance and support is the wisest thing to do. Members can use the BeyondChocolate.co.uk forum for this; a hugely supportive and welcoming environment that can make all the difference. There are dozens of threads to post on or just read for reassurance.
  4. CONTAIN IT. If it’s not the right place or time to explore or share your feelings, one way to manage this is to contain them in a imaginary ‘safe box’. First, imagine your own safe box. What does it look like? How big is it, what is it made of, what colour is it, how does it lock? Create a crystal-clear picture in your mind so when feelings rise at a bad time, you know where to put them. Become aware of what it is you’re feeling. Once acknowledged, imagine locking it away until you can deal with it. Don’t let feelings fester in the box. Commit to only putting in one at a time, and if, when you go back to the box, it seems as if the feeling has eased, give yourself a few minutes to recall it to ensure it really has gone, as feelings don’t often just disappear.

Photograph: iStock

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