Do you ever wonder why you overeat after coming home from work, after a fun outing with girlfriends, or at night?
You’re not alone. Millions of smart, accomplished, dynamic women do the same thing. The problem isn’t insufficient will power, knowledge, or discipline. The problem is sensitivity to energy.
One of the reasons why we binge is that we’re looking for a release. Our modern lifestyle of constant activity, stress and pressure keeps our bodies in fight or flight mode. This sense of always being “on” activates our sympathetic nervous system, where our brains prepare for the stress of an emergency. Our bodies hum with energy and adrenaline, like a cat ready to pounce.
While in the past, you were on alert from real dangers like being chased by a wild animal, now you’re on alert because you’re stressed, anxious, and keyed up. You're trying to tackle a mile long to-do list, keep up with your kids’ schedules, and nail your big presentation at work. You can even be on alert in social settings from the pressure of being socially “on,” of putting on your social face with others, or the stress of managing family dynamics.
So what happens when you come home from work, when you leave the party or family gathering, when you finish the presentation? When you finally let down—usually in the evening, at the end of the day—you crave food. Eating—particularly eating sugary, starchy comfort foods—is how you release, how you facilitate that let down. Your body is trying to move into parasympathetic mode, the state of relaxation, and you comply by eating. Eventually, this becomes a regular pattern.
Alternatively, you may crave junk foods in the morning—donuts, oversized muffins, pastries—as a way to jump start the adrenaline, to gear up for the day. It’s as if you’re bracing yourself to make it through the gauntlet of your daily life. It’s the same process, but in reverse.
To stop your habit of using food to “come down,” you don’t need more will power. You are not a “fat cow,” as your mind would have you believe, because you use food in this way. You simply need to give yourself outlets for that pent up energy. You need to work with your biology, not against it.
This is particularly true if you’re someone who’s empathetic and sensitive—someone who easily picks up on and feels other people’s emotions, moods and energy. As psychologist and author Dr. Judith Orloff says in her many books, your sensitive nervous system means that your body reacts to changes in energy more strongly, so you feel that pent up energy more acutely than someone else. It also means that you need to let other people’s energy move through you, too, lest it get stuck. This can explain why some women struggle with overeating and others don’t.
So what is the solution? Instead of using food as your release, try this:
1. Be mindful of when you’re eating to move energy. Your body already tells you when it needs to move energy: when you are craving sugary, fatty foods or when you want to overeat. Note these times. Chart your patterns. This is valuable knowledge. Once you know when you’re using food to come down, you can come up with alternative solutions.
2. Move energy through your body without eating. The word emotion is better spelled e-motion. You need to move feelings, energy, and stress through your body. When it gets stuck your body searches for an escape hatch – in your case, food. Create new patterns of release. Try moving energy with dancing, yoga, a walk, or a bike ride. Or, use deep breathing, singing, rocking in a rocking chair, listening to music, and even going for a drive in the car. Water is a great way to move energy, as it’s fluid: soak in a bath, take a shower, sit by a river or lake. Go outside: cloud gaze or watch the birds. Try a short nap, shavasana from yoga, or putting up your feet.
Think back to what you did as a child. What did you instinctively do to soothe yourself? (Besides eating!) Children intuitively move energy. How can you follow their example?
3. Have mini-breaks throughout your day. When you hurdle through life, jumping from one thing to another, you don’t allow your body time to recalibrate. Give yourself gentle transitions. Don’t schedule appointments back to back. Create small moments of recentering: can you stop and take a few deep breaths as you transition from work to home? How about a five minute afternoon break before you move from childcare mode to cooking dinner? When you recenter throughout the day, you don’t create a backlog in the evening, where the only relief that sounds good is three bowls of ice cream.
4. Lower your expectations for how much you need to accomplish. Our drive for productivity often comes at a high cost: our well-being. Can you add more rest to your day, so that you aren’t trying to recenter yourself with food? If you are overeating at the end of the day, you may want to think about why your life is so demanding that there isn’t any time for ease.
Your body tells you what it needs—you just have to listen. The pull to overeat is a helpful signal that you are out of balance. Listen to this guidance. Heed it. When you pay attention to your energy, you’ll find that your life—and eating habits—flow with ease. Then, your weight loss goals become achievable because you’ve taken an important step towards caring for yourself without food.