14. How to Manage Negative Emotions
Welcome to episode 14 of the Mindful Weight Loss podcast. I am Emily Erekuff and I'm so glad to be with you today wherever you are tuning in from.
Today we are talking about how to manage negative emotions and this is a big topic for those who eat when not hungry because much of the time we feel like our emotions are directing the show. You are frustrated with a project at work or with the kids and find yourself wandering into the kitchen and before you know if you're a few handfuls into a bag of chips. Or you have a stressful day and at the end you feel like the only way to relax and get relief is to go to the refrigerator.
And for so many of us using food to cope with our emotions is so habitual that we don't realize we are even doing it. We don't realize that the frustration at work or home prompted us to eat those chips. We don't realize that the reason we want something sweet at the end of the day is because we feel emotionally exhausted. And because of that so many of us don't even consider ourselves to be emotional eaters. We think I just like food too much, or I'm addicted to sugar and carbs.
So a first step for many is simply to acknowledge that it's not just about the food and that we are using food to cope with what's going on. And the second step right behind that is to acknowledge that that kind of coping behavior is ok and nothing to be ashamed of.
We need to stop judging ourselves for trying to feel better and using food to accomplish that. We all have coping behaviors that help us feel better in tough situations. Some of those simply have negative consequences after the fact, and if we can see that more clearly without heaping on a helping of guilt, then we can begin to look for other options. But notice the vicious cycle that occurs when we eat because we feel bad and then we make ourselves feel bad about eating.
Now, ok, say you acknowledge that you eat in response to your emotions - that you are triggered to eat in response to certain emotional states. And indeed I want to acknowledge that a craving itself is an emotional state - there's often an intense feeling - an urgent desire for food.
So how then do we handle those emotional states that motivate us to eat.
The standard advice is not to run away from those feelings. It's to feel our feelings and allow them into our experience. And indeed when we are experiencing a craving, notice that the craving doesn't feel good. We are actually eating to make the craving go away. We are trying to remove that state or feeling from our experience.
And so yes, ultimately we want to to learn to process our emotions and experience them. Indeed research shows that if we avoid our emotions we are actually making them stronger.
I agree with that, but I feel like the advice we're given is often incomplete. Many say to just sit with the urge - just ride it out. But that's easier said than done when we don't have the right mindset and strategy to do that. And that's what I want to share with you today.
So first, let's look at your mindset around negative emotions. If you tend to ignore your emotions whether consciously or unconsciously, you likely have a resistant attitude toward them. And you're not alone. Many of us have been taught to ignore, deny and avoid our emotions and specifically the ones that we view as being negative.
Why we do this seems to boil down to nurture over nature. Research has shown cultural variations not just in how we view emotions, but in which emotions we experience. For example Chinese Americans tend to experience more of a balance of emotions whereas Americans of European decent tend to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative ones.
And that's good news because that means that our own view of emotions is learned and therefore malleable. We can learn to change how we think about emotions so that they are easier to allow into our experience.
So what are your thoughts about negative emotions. Do you think they are big and scary? Do you think you shouldn't have them? Do you think that they are inconvenient and in the way. Do you wish you could just get rid of them?
What if your emotions weren't big and scary? What if they were actually helpful and beneficial to you? What if they were simply messengers or indicators of what was going on in your brain?
Because really, that's what they are and when you can truly recognize that and experience that benefit, it will be much much easier to experience them.
I've explained in the past that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy shows us that our thoughts drive our emotions. And we have thousands of thoughts per day, many that we are not even aware of.
And so the benefit of our emotions is that they clue us into what the heck we are thinking when we aren't really paying attention, when we are not being mindful. Negative emotions alert us that we are thinking negative thoughts. And let's not forget that negative thoughts aren't true.
So what if you could simply pay attention to your negative emotions before they get big and scary, realize the negative thought you are thinking and then redirect your brain to something that feels better?
Now I know that might not sound exciting, but let's compare our painful emotions to physical pain.
Physical pain is a helpful indicator of danger and something we wouldn't want to be without. In fact there are diseases that prevent people from feeling pain and keeping them uninjured and alive is difficult. Imagine if you didn't feel pain when you placed your hand on a hot stove. You'd have no signal to remove your hand and you'd develop severe, potentially life-threatening burns.
Emotional pain is no different. It's a warning that you're thinking a painful thought.
And yet we seem to understand that we don't need to vilify the physical pain. We know that the hand on the hot stove is the real culprit, the real cause of the problem, and that we should simply avoid placing our hand on a hot stove in the future. In fact, the physical pain helped us learn this.
But we don't have this same view of our emotions. We think they are the problem and we vilify them. And when they come up, instead of heeding their warning and investigating our thoughts, we avoid them and try to ignore them.
Imagine if you put your hand on a hot stove and tried to simply ignore the pain? That seems crazy right, and also impossible in that the pain would become too much for us to handle. And yet that's what we do with our emotions. We ignore their warnings and continue thinking the same things until it becomes unbearable. Until we feel we have no choice but to overeat.
And this isn't our fault. We don't learn this in school. When you are feeling bad, nobody says, hey let's look at what you are thinking so we can adjust. We know we want to stop the negative emotions but we don't know what the equivalent is to removing our hand from the stove.
But now you know, your emotions are not to blame. It's your thoughts that are the cause of the pain.
And your emotions don't have to be big and scary once you know this and if you practice checking in with them early and often - long before you are in the midst of a craving to overeat. That is when your emotions are their most powerful and painful, so it's unwise to think that is the ideal time to suddenly tune into your feelings and embrace them.
Instead you need to work up to that and get ahead of it. You need to ask yourself how you are feeling and what you are thinking when you think you're feeling fine or nothing at all. And not only is that a lot less scary, it also helps you adjust your focus so that you don't get to the point of overwhelm and overeating.
If you can pinpoint early in your day that you are feeling just a little off, it's much more easy to right the ship towards more positive thoughts than it is once you are miles off course.
And can you kind of see then how your negative feelings are actually helping you, guiding you to better feelings. It's counterintuitive but if you can remember this it is so helpful in every facet of your life. Your negative emotions are steering you towards a path of feeling good. They're like a radar signal that alerts you that danger is approaching and they get stronger and louder as the danger gets closer. But if you can just move your brain away from that danger, from the negative thoughts, that warning signal will get softer and quieter.
And that doesn't mean getting rid of your thoughts or changing them. You don't have to get rid of the hot stove, just don't touch it. Similarly just don't engage with those negative thoughts. See them for the danger they are and just let them be. Don't talk yourself out of them or argue with them. Just let them be there and then make a choice to focus on another thought. Treat them like that creepy or jerky guy at a party who tries to strike up a conversation with you. You acknowledge the guy and you're polite, but you don't welcome him into your circle and then you go back to talking to your friends. Acknowledge the negative thoughts and then refocus on positive thoughts.
So learn to see your negative emotions as the helpful warnings that they are. This is THE major key to befriending them. And key #2: instead of waiting for them to blow up in your face, check in with yourself a few times a day to see if your emotional radar detects any danger far off on the horizon so you can get ahead of it. Do this even if you think you're not feeling anything wrong or not feeling anything at all. I guarantee you are thinking something. So let's figure out what that is and if it serves you so you can stay on course and have a good day.
And put your thoughts and feelings on paper so you can see the correlations. You do this for a few days and you'll really start to notice the patterns of your thinking.
And I hope you have seen here that your thoughts not only generate your emotions, they also dictate your experience of the emotions themselves. You don't just have the ability to change your thoughts about certain situations, you also have the ability to change how you think about emotions themselves. And that can have a really dramatic impact on your entire life.