When we eat highly palatable foods (foods high in fat, sugar, or refined flour), our brain’s reward circuitry is activated, producing pleasure and desire. These effects motivated our ancestors to load up on high-calorie foods in times of plenty in order to endure times of food scarcity. For them, taking advantage of available high calorie food was a matter of survival. We, on the other hand, don’t usually need the extra calories. This reward circuitry motivates us to keep eating anyway, just as it motivates the drug addict to continue his self-destructive behavior. When we are surrounded by highly palatable foods, it’s easy to overuse this reward circuitry. We use the natural highs that these foods give us to comfort ourselves when we are stressed, anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or depressed. We often eat to regulate our emotions, not because we are hungry. This is called self-medicating or emotional eating. While using food for emotional comfort once in a while is not necessarily a bad thing, making a habit out of it is a recipe for continued weight gain. Finding better ways to manage your emotions can help you overcome a habit of emotional eating.
In this chapter you will learn five ways to improve your emotional well-being: focusing on the present, mental relaxation, healthy thinking, social interaction, and doing something productive. Focus on the Present Harvard psychology researchers did a study with over two thousand iPhone users to find out what kinds of thoughts and activities make people happy. The researchers created an iPhone app to prompt the study participants at random times as they went about their daily lives. Each time they were prompted, the participants reported what they were doing, thinking, and feeling. Participants who had been mentally focused on whatever they were doing or experiencing generally reported feeling happier than those whose minds had been wandering. Even daydreaming about pleasant topics was less often associated with happiness than was focusing on the present task or experience.
Whether you are at your job, doing housework, playing a sport, or taking a walk, focusing your mind on your present activity or experience can help elevate your mood. As you focus on the present, try to keep an accepting, nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever you are experiencing at the moment. This practice, called mindfulness, has been taught in Eastern traditions for centuries, and is increasingly used in Western medicine to treat anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, and stress-relatedconditions.
You can practice mindfulness now by taking a moment to look around and notice the colors, sounds, and other details of your environment. As you become caught up in the present, you free your mind from the worries and unhealthy thought patterns that depress your mood. Try to practice mindfulness throughout the day. When you are actively engaged in a task, keep your mind on that task instead of letting your thoughts wander. When you are not actively engaged in a task, focus your thoughts on your present experience or surroundings. The most difficult part of focusing on the present is just remembering to do it. You can use a card like the sample one at the end of the chapter as a reminder. Place it where you will see it often, and move it around every day or two so it doesn’t fade
into the background.
Relax Your Mind
When you are in a stressful situation, your body experiences a stress response (often called the “fight or flight” response). Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your air passages open up, and glucose pours into your blood stream. Blood vessels that feed your skin and digestive system constrict, sending extra blood to your muscles, heart, and brain. These changes prepare your body and mind for action. You are on edge, ready to fight or flee. The stress response is natural and sometimes beneficial. It enables you to focus your physical and mental abilities in a sudden dangerous or challenging situation. The constant activation of the stress response, however, is not natural, and can cause various mental and physical problems. Your body also has a relaxation response that opposes the stress response.
The relaxation response occurs naturally when your mind is at ease, but it can’t occur when you are worrying, judging, or analyzing. You can deliberately produce the relaxation response by freeing your mind from these kinds of thoughts. One way to do this is by meditating. Sleeping, lounging around, and watching television are often less helpful because they may not free your mind from disturbing or arousing thoughts. Regular activation of the relaxation response can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and promote healing from stress-related physical illnesses. Daily mental relaxation will increase your ability to tolerate the stressful events in your life as they occur, so you are less tempted to turn to food for comfort. There are several ways to activate the relaxation response. Three of the easiest and most powerful techniques are sensory focus, basic meditation, and repetitive physical exercise.
These all involve focusing your mind on something simple and non-arousing. This gives your brain an intellectual and emotional break, allowing the relaxation response to occur. Here’s how to get started on a more relaxing lifestyle:
1. Read the rest of this section, then choose a mental relaxation technique (sensory focus, basic meditation, or repetitive physical exercise) and make it a daily habit.
2. Choose a set time each day for your relaxation session, such as after your morning shower or during an afternoon break.
3. To allow the relaxation response to fully engage, make your daily relaxation session last for at least twelve minutes. If you don’t have time for a twelve-minute session, do at least a five-minute session so you don’t get out of the habit.
4. Use one or more of these mental relaxation techniques to calm yourself any time you start to feel stressed or anxious throughout the day.