The Catch It Low Method
Emotional eating is probably among the most popular topics because so many of us struggle with it. For me, it dates back to when my mom would give us a candy bar when we had a particularly terrible day. The intention was to give a nice treat to brighten my day, not to create a harmful emotional eating habit through classical conditioning. But create a habit it did and ever since then, emotional eating has been my Achilles heel.
Part of it is that food, particularly sugar, releases happy chemicals in our brains so it makes sense our bodies would crave things that trigger happy chemicals when our happy chemicals are low and we're struggling. Another part is classical conditioning where our brains learn to associate feeling bad with getting treats. This means the next time we feel bad our brains crave the treats because they’ve learned that's what goes with feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, or upset. The final piece is that this habit is very difficult to break because in the moment of whatever chaos is going on and whatever psychological pain we’re in, the LAST thing on our minds is making the difficult decision to use healthier coping mechanisms. We’re already struggling so we resort to what's easiest and what's easiest is the habit we’ve created of using food to self-medicate.
And what happens when we're on a health and/or fitness journey and we emotional binge eat? We feel terrible about the eating and it adds to our distress, which comes with guilt and shame, which in turn makes us want to self-medicate THAT feeling with still more food. It's a vicious cycle.
A unique set of circumstances this year has given me the opportunity to develop a method that has helped me combat emotional eating and establish healthier coping mechanisms. I spent some time as a psychiatric technician during which they taught us to “catch it low” in regards to patient agitation and aggression. Rather than wait until patients are throwing chairs or taking swings at each other or staff, we were supposed to watch for any changes in behavior such as pacing, muttering, raised voices, body language, or rumors about growing frustration between patients or staff. We were taught to intervene at the point a patient is showing agitation and before it ever reached the point of aggression. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes we weren’t, and sometimes things happened in a flash with no wind up. But when we managed to successfully catch it low, we avoided danger to the patients, the people around them, and staff, as well as built rapport instead of placing ourselves in an adversarial situation.
My therapist and I noticed a pattern this year as we was talking with my therapist about what precedes my depressive episodes. There were signs that I was struggling and could reach a depressive episode long before the episode actually struck. I was aware when my anxiety was rising and I knew when I was approaching the threshold where my stress would trigger a depressive episode or a stress eating episode. It clicked. As a general rule, things tend to not just explode with no warning so it makes sense to stop it before it blows up in my face by paying attention to the signs. The key, just like with aggressive patients, is to catch it low rather than waiting for s*** to hit the fan.
In case psych hospital stories aren’t your thing, consider changing lanes. Do we wait for someone to run into us on the interstate before we react to someone changing lanes? No. We pay attention to the other drivers’ behavior and react accordingly. We notice when they’re drifting over and we either honk our horn or adjust our speed. We see if they’ve got their blinker on and either slow down to accommodate or be speed up to retain our space in line. We are aware that if their speed changes to position them exactly between two cars and we know that it means they may be considering changing lanes. Rather than wait for a car accident to occur, we pay attention to what’s going on around us and we CATCH IT LOW.
So, rather than wait for stress, depression, anxiety, etc. to blow up in our faces in the form of emotional eating, we can check in with ourselves regularly to see if we have any of the signs of stress, anxiety, or depression such as sweating, increased heart rate, drop in energy, insomnia, sleeping too much, racing thoughts, feeling like we can’t relax, muscle tension, or any other signs that characterize our particular distress patterns. Self-awareness is the first step. Then do something about it! Have a list of things that calm you or energize you. Is it music? A walk? Yoga? Meditation? Video games? Disney movies? Reading? Journaling? Cuddling? Certain scents? Cooking? Drawing or coloring? Whatever it is, write it down because it’s difficult to remember all the options on a good day and even harder on a rough one. This also helps prevent us from getting in a rut of boredom. We can divert our emotions before they get to the boiling point where we feel the urge to eat and thereby work on healthy coping mechanisms without having to battle the cravings. By catching it low, we set ourselves up for success and avoid the guilt cycle altogether.
If you know ahead of time that the office Christmas party or holidays with the family is going to be stressful, plan for it ahead of time. You can choose whether you go, how long you go, who you hang out with, prepare mentally, etc. You can choose to do things before and after that sooth you. When you feel your distress rising, exit. Control the things you can control by staying in tune with your emotions and deciding to catch them low!
What about when things really do blow up with no warning? For instance, a pandemic suddenly hits and unemployment is taking 3 years to process the claim. That’s another issue entirely and deserves its own post. Stay tuned!
Until then, what energizes or calms you?