Emotions and Bad Habits

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For research on my new book, I got a book called The Pathway by Laurel Mellin, MA, RD. She is a dietitian and professor at the University of California San Francisco. Her first book, called The Solution, came out in 1998 and focused on weight control. Both books show how emotions drive unhealthy practices, and how you can self-heal those feelings and behaviors.

Before I could look at The Pathway, my wife picked it up and started using the program. She seemed so happy with it that she got me trying it, too. I was surprised and kind of thrilled at Mellin’s radical ideas. Her method doesn’t just apply to eating, but to all the things we do out of habit. You know, all those things we don’t want to do but wind up doing anyway. They all follow the same pattern.

The specific problems you have — such as overeating, drinking, compulsive shopping, or playing too many stupid computer games and spending too much time looking at bad news on the Web (my problem) — depend on your genes, your environment, and your upbringing. But the driving force is always emotional.

Mellin says we engage in self-destructive behaviors as distractions from emotional pain. The reason we need so much distraction is because we never learned how to nurture ourselves. Our parents couldn’t, or didn’t know how, so they couldn’t show us. The Solution is to learn how to self-nurture.

It’s a simple process, but it’s a fair amount of work. You have to gradually pay more attention to your emotions and become more comfortable with them. Then you learn to be gentle with yourself, to recognize your unrealistic expectations and replace them with reasonable goals that don’t cause you so much pain. You learn to go for what you really want and need, instead of grabbing a distraction, whether it’s a donut or a bottle.

Research supports Mellin’s method, called Developmental Skills Training (DST). It has been particularly effective in dealing with childhood obesity. Mellin is director of UC’s Center for Child and Adolescent Obesity. She says that children grasp DST more easily, but anyone can get to their Solution if they stick with it.

Emotions, Stress, and Food
As I wrote last week, you can always tell when eating is emotional. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and needs to be satisfied immediately. Physical hunger comes on more slowly. With emotional eating, you’re not as aware of what you’re eating. You may not even taste it. You may just remember the comforting feeling it gives you.

When I read this information on Web MD, I suddenly understood The Pathway. Because all these addictions feel the same. It’s not just eating. It’s everything you can’t control. You don’t have time to think about them; they are not rational. You just suddenly need to act like an idiot. You need some relief from some kind of emotional pain.

It’s easy to see how this dynamic would interfere with diabetes self-management or weight control. The more emotional pain you have in your life — and diabetes guarantees a fair amount of it — and the less self-nurturing and limit-setting skills you have, the more you will be driven to use external soothers such as food. Even if you know it’s going to raise your blood glucose or make you depressed, in that moment, you have to grab that cookie or whatever. Or in my case, turn on that video game.

It’s also easy to see how stress aggravates emotional eating, or emotional anything. Stressful situations will trigger uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, or guilt. If we are not aware of those emotions or are unable to tolerate them, we will self-medicate with our favorite bad habit. At least, we will until we learn to self-nurture.

So What’s the Solution?
I can’t explain the DST in one blog entry, or five. You might need to get a book, visit the Solution web site, or read one of Mellin’s papers.

But you can do a couple of simple things. When you recognize an emotional hunger, that “gottahaveitnow” feeling, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Try to identify your feelings and the underlying expectations.

Example: You’re driving home after a long, annoying day at work and thinking about how you still have to cook dinner and listen to the kids argue with each other. You pull into the 7-Eleven parking lot to buy an apple fritter. Stop! What are you feeling? Say it out loud, “I’m angry about the way my supervisor dumped extra work on me.” “I’m afraid to object to the way they treat me.” “I’m sad that I never have energy to be there for the kids”…or whatever.

You might also want to ask yourself what are the unrealistic expectations behind some of these feelings? Do you think you should be perfect at work and at home? What would be more realistic expectations? What would be a positive but realistic way of thinking about your situation? It’s a kind of self-directed cognitive-behavioral therapy, and it works pretty well, even without the rest of the program.

Of course, it’s better to avoid situations that you know are likely to drive you out of control, whether it’s watching too much TV or talking with your insulting neighbor. If you can gain more control of your emotions, not only will emotional eating be less of a problem, but you will feel better and more relaxed in all kinds of ways. It’s working for me and my partner. Does it make sense to you?

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