This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Wellness Magazine.
I know a woman whose job is total chaos. Priorities are always changing and everything is due yesterday. She comes home so worked-up that she delves into a bag of salty chips, her comfort food, to decompress. By 8:00 pm, her hands and feet swell as she falls asleep in front of the television, exhausted.
This is stress eating. This is a not a matter of making better food choices. She is eating to fill a much deeper hunger. Perhaps the ever changing priorities and rushed nature of her work deny her the satisfaction of a job well done. Yet she can eat, and eat and eat and never satisfy this need. Many of us try to eat our way out of emotional hunger. Then we wonder why we are overweight, sick and tired.
It takes great presence of mind, or mindfulness, to tell the difference between a hungry belly and a hungry heart. Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what is going on in and around us in the present moment. It’s difficult to stay in the present moment because we are always ruminating about the past or anticipating the future instead of enjoying this moment. That’s why it’s possible to consume a bag of chips or a quart of ice cream when you are eating to fill a hungry heart. You are aware of your worries, not your food.
Stress increases the hormones insulin and cortisol. These hormones occur naturally in our body giving us the burst of energy we need to respond to threats, such as a herd of wooly mammoths stampeding toward us. The problem with 21st century life is that our day is full on non-life threatening events that we perceive as life threatening. We respond as if the wooly mammoth herd is stampeding from minute-to-minute. This leads to constantly elevated insulin and cortisol and can lead to conditions such as diabetes, obesity, dementia, depression, chronic fatigue and lowered immunity.
Sonia Lupien, PhD, from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at McGill University in Montreal defines stress as “going N.U.T.S.” We feel stressed when a situation is Novel, Unpredictable, Threatens our sense of self and leaves us with a poor Sense of control. N.U.T.S. can help bring us back to the present moment. When you are feeling stressed and are about to reach for that bag of chips or quart of ice cream ask yourself, “am I going N.U.T.S?” That is, am I in a novel or unpredictable situation, or do I feel threatened or out of control? If the answer is yes, then eating will not give you relief.
This takes us back to mindfulness. You have to have some presence of mind to notice how you feel as you are reaching for that candy bar. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD offers this exercise for cultivating present moment awareness. Take a single raisin and eat it. Ordinarily you might pop the raisin in your mouth, chew a few times and swallow, for the most part unconsciously. But mindful raisin eating is much different. Look at the raisin. Consider its shape, weight, color and texture. Next place the raisin in your mouth, sensing how it feels on the tongue as the mouth welcomes it with salivation. Then chew the raisin slowly and thoroughly, focusing on its taste and texture. Finally, swallow the raisin noticing how it feels as it journeys to your stomach.
When you are present in this way, you can determine what you really need in this moment. Perhaps a walk, yoga, meditation, journaling or a good cry are better choices. Or maybe you need to use the raisin method to enjoy your chips. Perhaps you won’t eat as many or may even realize that you don’t want them.
There a many ways to learn mindfulness, from formal training programs such as Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction to local groups that meet weekly to practice mindfulness together. Please see www.bethanyklug.com right sidebar for links. For more information on N.U.T.S. please see www.douglasrecherche.qc.ca/stress/.