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Emotional triggers

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Identifying emotional triggers is the most important tool we use as psychologists. Unless we identify the emotional triggers to overeating, we can’t help our clients. Using food to deal with your emotional problems causes a lifelong struggle with weight.

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Emotional triggers

  1. 1. 1 EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS how to identify emotional triggers to overeating and how to work with them Kate Swann & Kristina Mamrot Leading Psychologists
  3. 3. 3 EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS HOW TO IDENTIFY EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS TO OVEREATING AND HOW TO WORK WITH THEM This is the most important tool we use as psychologists. Unless we identify the emotional triggers to overeating, we can’t help our clients. Using food to deal with your emotional problems causes a lifelong struggle with weight. Let’s look at a few typical scenarios: Scenario One Thirty minutes after dinner, Richard sees TV news footage of an earthquake in South America. Although he has never have been in an earthquake, isn’t close to anyone who has, and has no ties to South America, the images of desolation and despair trigger powerful emotions of anxiety in him. Richard doesn’t like feeling anxious, so he raids the pantry to distract himself from his emotions and bury them under a pile of salt and vinegar chips. He doesn’t consciously think, “I’m feeling anxious because I’m distressed by people in despair, so I’ll reduce my anxiety by opening a pack of chips.” For Richard, this behaviour feels automatic. Scenario Two An hour after finishing dinner, Mary has hung out all the washing, sorted out the kitchen, made sure the kid’s homework and music practice are under control, and packed the last lunch for the next day. She’s ready to collapse onto the couch with her magazines, and on the way she picks up the block of chocolate she had hidden on the top shelf of the pantry. This feels like automatic well-rehearsed behaviour for Mary, who has struggled to lose five kilos (11 pounds) for five years. But what emotion makes her reach for the chocolate block? For Mary, it is strong feelings of guilt. When she sits down to relax, Mary feels lazy and selfish. Emotional triggers are strong, sometimes overwhelmingly so. They are quite capable of overriding feelings of fullness (and common sense). For example, a person who has just finished dinner may react emotionally to a thought, feeling, behaviour or some external stimulus (like an item on the news). This triggers them to reach for something to eat. Often, the emotional response triggers this behaviour instantaneously.
  4. 4. 4 Most people overeat or eat when they’re not hungry to avoid or distract themselves from their overwhelming feelings. Some people feel lonely or abandoned. Others may feel ignored or neglected. Another group may feel unlovable. They’re all experiencing an emotional void, an emptiness they attempt to fill with food. We also use food to avoid or bury anger. Anger is an extremely powerful emotion. People who grew up in families where anger was unleashed, or where it wasn’t tolerated, may believe that anger is bad and needs to be repressed. Because they’ve never learnt how to express their anger appropriately, it overwhelms them, and they turn to food. Some people feel burdened by feelings of shame or guilt. Whatever the reason, these emotions can be onerous and unbearable. They feel guilty or ashamed about things they have and haven’t done. For these people, their guilt or shame can be managed or lessened by turning to food, at least for a while. Sometimes a trauma, experienced as a child or an adult, can trigger emotional eating. For example, someone who has suffered a trauma may find that eating chocolate soothes their emotions. For a while, chocolate comforts them. And so a habit is born. And pretty soon they’ll be reaching for chocolate every time they feel distressed or upset. Using food to deal with emotional distress causes a life-long struggle with weight.
  5. 5. 5 ROSE’S STORY
  6. 6. 6 Hi, I’m Rose, I’m 27 years old, and I’ve been obese all my life. People think that’s impossible, because I must have just been a chubby baby. But my weight was always in the 98th percentile. I was born obese, I was a ten pounder (4.6 kilos), and I started life being inconvenient to people ’cos my Mum had to have a cesarean with me which she hadn’t needed for the boys, and that put her out of action for weeks. And then I was ravenous and got her up at night for feeds long after my brothers had slept through. I know it was hard lugging a heavy baby and then a heavy toddler around with her to all the boys’ sports games, but she was really great about it. Especially as I took my own sweet time learning to walk. My Dad was just as good. He’s always called me his little butter bean because I was so soft and round. He still calls me Butter (which is actually a bit embarrassing now at my age, but I know he means it in a really loving way). The worst thing in my life happened about a year ago. I was at the doctor and he had a look at the results of some tests he had run a while ago, and got really mad. Do you want to die? he yelled at me. He’s tried for years to get me to lose weight, and I guess he was just a bit frustrated. But I was mortified. The whole waiting room would have heard. I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life. “You will die,” he said. Get yourself on a diet and lose weight. I want you back in here in two months and I want you 10 kilos (22 pounds) lighter.” I thought that was pretty unfair, ’cos I had a great job which I loved, a great circle of friends, a mortgage and a long-term boyfriend. I was actually quite good at sticking with most things, except losing weight. I didn’t know where to turn, but I ended up at the chemist looking at all the weight loss pills, and the chemist talked to me about one of those diet shake systems. She said you need to combine it with exercise, so I ended up at one of those all- women gyms. But my trainer was wonderful. She let me cry, and between sobs, she asked me what was going on. My whole story came out that day, the humiliation, the fear, the dread of trying and failing, you name it, she heard it, warts and all. And to my amazement, she wasn’t cross with me. In fact, the first thing she said was, “Let’s get you off those wretched shakes and in to see a dietitian.” And that was the start of my new life. The dietitian she sent me to was a bit like her, and we worked on a meal plan of mostly » food I liked. But with both their support, I went with it (it felt like stepping off a cliff). Neither of them criticised or blamed me when it was tough. ROSE, 27 “If you keep on eating everything you see, you’ll just get fatter.”
  7. 7. 7 I lost five kilos (11 pounds) in those first two months, and I was over the moon. I’d never been able to do that before. I was bursting with pride when I went back to see the GP, but he just shook his head. “Hmm, I didn’t think you’d be able to do it, he said. And I was right. At this rate, it’s going to take you forever to lose all that weight.” Back at the gym my trainer was cross, but not with me. “Stuff them all,” she said, handing me a tissue. “You and I know how hard you’ve worked. I’ve had enough of this. Time to change doctors, and time to stop sharing your weight loss highs and lows with your parents.” Changing doctors felt a bit radical, but the dietitian referred me to this amazing GP she knew. And for the first time in my entire life, I stood up to my parents. When they asked me how much I weighed at the next family dinner with my brothers and their girlfriends and wives the following week, I spoke up bravely. “From now on, I’m not going to be discussing that with you.” I was shaking, but I felt great. We celebrated with high fives in the gym the next day. Now I’m not saying that any of this has been easy. Losing the weight has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not exaggerating. But I’ve got a team on my side for the first time that’s gently helping me along. And the weight is very, very slowly coming off. “It felt like stepping off a cliff” “From now on I’m not discussing [my weight] with you!”
  8. 8. 8 KATH’S STORY
  9. 9. 9 Well, there I was, leaning into the pantry as I do, hand poised to pick up the pack of rosemary and sea salt chips. “Wait Kath, have a think about what you’re doing.” But like a good girl I stopped, hand poised. Would the nuts be a better option? “Kath,” the voice warned. “Oh all right,” I replied, “I was just thinking about it.” Damn, it had seemed so simple during the therapy session, when we talked about putting some space between leaning in to the pantry and picking up the chips. But now I was leaning in, I was struggling to remember what to do. How could I stop myself? “That’s right!” I thought. And I took a step back and firmly closed the pantry doors. Was I really hungry, or was I trying to fill the empty space inside of me with food? And if I was really hungry, did I feel like chips, or did I want something else? Was I getting hunger and thirst confused again? Drat. When I realised what it was that I really wanted, what I wanted more than a pack of chips or a glass of wine (or even George Clooney), I felt the colour drain away from my face. I wanted a divorce! My marriage had been rotten right from the start, and my husband had always refused to talk about what was going on for me, or why I was so unhappy. Well now the kids had grown up and left, I was stuck all by myself living with a man I didn’t respect, didn’t like, and hardly even talked to. Good. What did I want to do now? What I wanted to do was put on my runners and walk the 40 minutes to my sister’s place so I could talk it over with her! Well that had never happened before either! So I phoned to make sure she was there, eventually found my trainers and walked over, letting my thoughts wander through this scary decision I had made. So that’s how my goal of losing weight ended up in divorce. I’m not saying it was easy, but my psych was great with helping me work out the connection between these seemingly unrelated parts of my life. It was all about eating down my misery and loneliness. And that last night of leaning in to the pantry showed me how great getting out in the fresh air and walking can be. I was a bit dumbfounded at first, I’d missed out on something so important all my life, but at least I’d discovered it while I could still walk. So now I get out for a walk every day, and sometimes twice when I want some thinking time. KATH, 53 “I felt the colour drain from my face, I wanted a divorce!” “I fill myself up with good times with people i love, people who care about me”
  11. 11. 11 LET’S RECAP, AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE CAN TRIGGER UNWANTED EATING BEHAVIOUR. BUT WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT? STEP 1 STEP 2 STEP 3 STEP 4 Map out the events that led to an unwanted eating episode. Create a time-line, and include as much detail as possible, focusing on what you were thinking, feeling and doing. Consider your environment, were you alone, was it dark, were you expecting a call from someone who didn’t come? Finally, ask yourself what meaning you placed on these events. Now look at the feelings you were experiencing immediately before the unwanted eating. If you can’t see anything in your notes that triggered the eating, you may have moved through the events too quickly. Try slowing things down, and replaying exactly what happened in your mind. Close your eyes and picture yourself going through the motions. Tease out every experience, and write down every detail. The emotions you’ve noticed immediately preceding the unwanted eating will be the emotions that are likely to have triggered your episode of unwanted eating. Create a support team. Connect with people who can help you on the journey and will do so without any judjment.
  12. 12. 12 Where to from here Download our other e-book The Sane Guide to Weight Loss: 75 Tips to Help You Never Diet Again. Visit the PS Counselling website Subscribe to our newsletter Call us at 03 9882 8810 Stay in touch with social media
  13. 13. 13 ABOUT PS COUNSELLING Kristina Mamrot – Director & Consulting Psychologist While working with a broad range of presenting problems, Kristina specialises in working in the PS Weight Management Program with Eating Disorders and Obesity, with adolescents and adults struggling with depression and anxiety, and with women suffering from post-natal depression. She also works with adults to improve parenting skills and in couples counselling. Kate Swann – Director & Consulting Psychologist Treating clients across the range of presenting issues at PS, Kate specialises in working with adults and adolescents who have experienced childhood trauma, and are struggling with depression and/or anxiety. She also works with Eating Disorders, Obesity, and Borderline Personality Disorder.
  14. 14. 14 (03) 9882 8810 3/650 BURWOOD ROAD HAWTHORN EAST VIC 3123 PSCOUNSELLING.COM.AU Copyright© Kate Swann & Kristina Mamrot 2014
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Identifying emotional triggers is the most important tool we use as psychologists. Unless we identify the emotional triggers to overeating, we can’t help our clients. Using food to deal with your emotional problems causes a lifelong struggle with weight.


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