Emotional health and weight can become so intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two. People often use food as a compensatory measure when they feel unhappy, bored, or angry, since sugar-rich foods release the brain’s feel-good chemical, dopamine. However, the effects are short-lived and only act to disrupt normal hunger-related brain signals, leading to over-eating and weight gain. If this sounds like you, here are some tools to help you break this cycle.
Keep a mood diary
The first step is to examine your emotions honestly via a mood diary. This can help you chart your most prominent emotions, the time of day they occur, and their impact on your eating and vice versa. Once you are aware of critical times when emotions may get the better of you, it will be easier to manage moods and stop yourself from reverting to old habits. Free online mood diaries are available including MedHelp, Mood Tracker, and MoodPanda. If you want to build your own mood diary, here are some tips to get you started.
• Decide on the moods you will use as headings — anxiety, general mood, depression, stress, and irritability, for example. Choose only as many as you can realistically monitor.
• Decide on the number of times you will record moods — once daily, twice daily or only when you have a strong emotion.
• Create a rating system appropriate for each item. For example, you can rate irritability on a scale from one to five, where one is extremely low irritability and five is extremely high.
• Include a comments area for notes on particular thoughts regarding an emotion. For example, you may be affected by the anniversary of a traumatic event.
• Summarize your moods and compare them weekly to monitor progress. Your journey to emotional health should be reflected in changes you start to see in your mood diary over time.
Keep a reflective journal
Journaling allows you to reflect and assess why certain events trigger intense emotions. It provides a chance to consider what you could do to react in a more positive way the next time. Through writing, you can clarify your thoughts and emotions, as well as how they might be linked to your eating habits. Journaling has been scientifically proven to help process emotions, and studies suggest that those who keep journals are more successful at managing their weight than those who do not.
Some questions to kick-start your journaling
• How happy am I with my current life?
• What changes could I make to improve my future?
• If I could talk to my younger self, what advice would I give?
• What are my aspirations?
• What do I hope to get out of journaling?
Many of the benefits that come from keeping a mood diary or reflective journal are the result of grounding yourself in the present moment. They help you be mindful and to examine your breathing, body, thoughts and experiences in a non-judgmental manner. Acceptance is part of the process, so there should be no conscious efforts to reject or change your mood.
Next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion and want to reach for dopamine-releasing food, lie flat on your back, arms by your side, palms upward, and feet relaxed outward. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe in and out, trying to inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of six. Visualize the fresh breath entering your body and revitalizing every part with oxygen. Become aware of your thoughts and of that strong emotion you were experiencing. Do not pursue it — simply let it float through your brain while concentrating on your breathing and releasing it as you exhale.
Regulating your emotions is a choice you can make, and once you are in control of your feelings, you can work on using positive energy to help better manage your weight. These tools will help you on your journey to gain greater awareness of your emotions and ultimately allow you to recover ownership of your body.