The Food and Feelings Workbook

A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health

by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed

Triggers to Intense Feelings and Disordered Eating
(Don't They Come With Safety Locks?)

Excerpt from The Food and Feelings Workbook

If you love a good mystery, this chapter is for you! It will help you figure out why you shift into food mode when you're hit with tidal wave of emotion—and what to do about it. You know the behaviors: weighing yourself on the hour, doing a calorie count instead of your taxes, polishing off the desserts you planned to serve your dinner guests, or hanging out near your colleague's candy bowl when you're bored at work. If any of these mini-mysteries sounds familiar, it's time to don your Sherlock Holmes cap and discover what triggers you. A bit of sleuthing may be required, but once you've identified and collared the usual suspects, you stop yourself from getting robbed of your feelings in the future.

What is an emotional trigger?

Emotional triggers are external and internal stimuli that automatically activate a reaction within you, that is, they cause affective distress. Triggers may be people or events—a call from your elderly mother berating you for not visiting often enough or bumping into an ex-colleague who received the promotion you wanted. They also could be memories or thoughts about the future (called projections) that act like trip wires— recollections of the child you lost to cancer or angst about your upcoming salary review.

Think of your emotions as firecrackers: you're in no danger as long as they don't ignite (that is, get triggered). No matter how many firecrackers are stacked inside you, even dozens, you're safe as long as you don't strike a match. But the instant a flame lights one of your fuses, bam, instant Fourth of July.

When you find yourself triggered and are uncomfortable with your emotions, (which happens to all of us at times), you may act out in various ways, including the food arena, as a distraction from distress—planning your next diet, rushing off to exercise, or heading toward the refrigerator. This domino effect happens so fast that you might miss the trigger that set you off as well as your emotional response, and may only return to earth when you're exhausted from your workout or have finished off the last donut in the box.

Emotional triggers vary in intensity and visibility. Some are blatantly apparent, while others hover at the edge of awareness. Some set you off every time you encounter them, others press your buttons only when you're vulnerable and stressed. Some hit you head on, others sneak up from behind. It's impossible to live a full life without running into emotional triggers. Because you're not made of Teflon, the best you can do is to try to avoid the obvious ones, know what heats you up, and learn how to cool yourself down.

How can I stop acting out with food in response to emotional triggers?

Triggers will continue to lead to knee-jerk, destructive impulses around food unless you tackle the problem from multiple angles and make different decisions at specific choice points. You will need to stay focused on three areas simultaneously to achieve success: changing your beliefs about triggers, food, and emotions; learning how to identify and handle your feelings effectively; and eliminating acting out with food by developing new self-care strategies.

Let's run through your options using an example of an external, ongoing trigger to see what you can do to change the outcome of a situation. Say that every week you spend time with Uncle Charlie who's more than a bit of a grouch now, but who was a favorite of yours in childhood. You feel badly for him, yet come away from each visit vowing it will be your last and fuming with hostility—resentment that he's eating up your precious leisure hours, anger that all he does is complain, disappointment that he rarely expresses any interest in your life, and helplessness that you can't get out of what you feel is your duty. It never fails, you're barely out the door of Charlie's nursing home room and you're obsessing about food.

Changing Your Beliefs

The first thing you could do to change the outcome of your visit is to alter your thoughts about Charlie and your duty toward him so that you won't feel so triggered. Rather than feeling guilty about considering skipping a weekly visit, you could decide that seeing him every other week is perfectly acceptable and fair. Or you could stop thinking of him as a burden, and remind yourself of all the kind things he did for you when you were a child. You could focus your thoughts on how good the visits are for him, not on how bad they are for you, or markedly reduce what you expect of him. All these are ways of changing your beliefs, which then alters your feelings, and ultimately, impacts your need to act out with food.

You might also want to reframe your beliefs about how you expect to react. If you tell your sister, "Every time I visit Uncle Charlie, I'm disappointed," you're programming yourself for—guess what—being let down. Change your beliefs about your emotions, and you'll actually feel differently. Tell yourself that when you leave him you'll feel proud, calm, compassionate, or even that you won't feel much of anything. By deciding what you want to feel about the visit, you can gently push away other unwanted feelings.

Finally, you can address the beliefs that underlie acting out with food. Again, if as you're saying goodbye to Charlie you think, "I have to have that piece of chocolate cake" or "I'm so fat, I'd better throw out those cashews or I'll eat them all," you're setting yourself on a path of destruction. Even if you're upset when you arrive home, you can have a set of beliefs that says you don't need to focus on food because you can take care of yourself just fine without it. Think: What if there was no such thing in the world as food—what would I do then? Make sure that the tape running in your head is healthy, and your behaviors will follow.

Handling Feelings

Along with creating healthier beliefs, you can also work on handling your emotions differently. With Uncle Charlie, you would first have to get under your initial responses of anger and resentment to understand the complexity of your reactions. Maybe you're frustrated and disappointed that he doesn't take any interest in you, but know how much your visits mean to him. Deep down you feel hurt and unappreciated and that's causing your anger. If you didn't believe that Charlie should be grateful for your time with him, you would visit him because you believe it's the right thing to do and leave feeling neutral or happy to have been of service! Often, once you get to the root of your feelings, they not only relieve you of the need to act out with food, but help you understand yourself (and other people) better.

When negative feelings about Charlie surface, you can remind yourself that they're only temporary and will pass or feel proud of doing more for your uncle than other family members do. You can laugh inwardly at his caricature-of-a-curmudgeon behavior, be curious about how he became so grumpy, or have compassion for someone who is so obviously bitter and unhappy. By changing your view of Charlie and your situation, you can't help but generate different, less-discomfiting feelings.

Eliminating Acting Out With Food

Even when you're unable to change your beliefs or handle your feelings effectively, you still have a third intervention point to prevent you from acting out through dysfunctional eating. The key is to make a decision that no matter what emotion you're experiencing, you refuse to use or abuse food to feel better. Any healthy behavior is fair game; the point is to choose to do something other than taking your feelings out on your appetite and your body.

Although the ultimate goal is to experience all your feelings, initially you may not be able to do that. If you can sit with how disappointed you are at Uncle Charlie or how much you miss his former self, fine. If not, you need to distance yourself from your emotions so that they don't overpower you and prompt you to do something unhealthy to your body and spirit. Possibly you don't have the skills yet to contain your feelings, and have to distract yourself instead. Okay, then, find some activity—any behavior that isn't self-destructive—to refocus you and buffer your emotions.

What else can I do to separate food and feeling?

Scrutinizing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is tough work, but it's the only way to get from here to there. Because this is a book about food and feelings, you will need to work both ends of the process to reach your goal of using each appropriately. This means doing whatever is necessary to put each in good working order. Remember that the more successful you are in identifying and handling your emotions, the easier it will be to avoid acting out with food. Alternately, the more effective you are in disengaging from unhealthy eating, the more chance your emotions will have to blossom and guide you toward authentic happiness.

You've probably figured out by now that transforming your emotional world means trying on lots of new behaviors. If you careen wildly through life, zooming from one crisis to another without stopping to examine what you feel, you'll have to slow down, digging deep in order to connect to your inner world, understand what your emotions mean to your life, and consider how they impact your relationship with food. Why not spend a few minutes at the end of each day recalling what emotions you experienced or writing them down in a journal? This activity is an excellent substitute for a day's end calorie count, a self-trashing for overeating, or a midnight snack.

Conversely, if you believe that every waking moment must be brimming with passion or heartache, you'll need to learn how to modulate emotions so that they don't overpower and rule you. Intense emotions can certainly make you feel alive, but they need to be complemented with good judgment and clear thinking. Your work is to get your head in gear, and give your heart a rest! Once you're in better balance, it will be easier to curtail food-related behaviors that hurt you and expand self-care activities that heal you.

Lastly, if you're generally angry, anxious, or defensive—basically an unhappy person—you're setting yourself up to fail at breaking the food-feelings bond. It's one thing to have moments of upset and angst and quite another to suffer from chronic dissatisfaction or melancholy. All someone needs to do is scratch your emotional surface, and you're bound to fly off the handle or plunge into despair. Until you realize that your view of the world acts like a magnet to emotional pain, you'll continue to suffer. Moreover, your negative reactions are bound to be so intense that they overshadow your best intentions to change your relationship with food.

Many chronic emotional states or conditions make it difficult to be a happy, productive member of society—as well as prevent you from functional eating. Perhaps you're depressed, suffer from an anxiety disorder, or haven't healed from long ago or recent trauma. Unless you deal with what's causing emotional blockages and ruptures, you won't be able to heal your pain or maintain healthy eating habits. What keeps you from exploring the roots of your unhappiness? What prevents you from getting the help you need to become the person you want (and deserve) to be?

If you can't figure out why you're a walking time bomb, a well of loneliness, or a hive of anxiety, you can read self-help books on emotional health and trauma, keep a journal of your emotions to help you track and understand them, share your feelings with understanding, compassionate friends, or take a workshop on how to be more assertive or how to relax with yoga. Last, but not least, if you've done all of the above and are still unable to change, you can seek out professional help.


What feelings stop you from getting the help you need to improve your life and repair your relationship with food?

Most of the strategies I've given for handling emotions and eating more sanely focus on making internal adjustments, but another avenue for transformation also exists: rather than change yourself, you can change your environment. Allowing yourself to remain in chronically stressful situations is nothing less than unhealthy and will make it nearly impossible to end your self-destructive reactions to food and weight. If you're sick and tired of going out to lunch with friends who constantly talk about dieting and losing weight or who complain and are going nowhere in life, it's time to find some new buddies. If every time you visit your son and daughter-in-law, they expect you to join them in cleaning the house, you'll need to find another venue for getting together. If work is stressing you out because you're doing the job of two people and your boss refuses to hire additional help, maybe you need to find work that's doable and brings you pleasure. If you're miserable in an abusive relationship, read the writing on the wall, gather your courage, get some help, and walk away.

Recognizing your emotional and eating triggers—and changing your responses—is challenging work. Triggers, however, are nothing more than buttons that get pushed when you think you can't help yourself. Maybe you've been telling yourself you can't for a long, long time, or maybe you've wanted to change, but don't know how. Keep focused on all three tracks—transforming unhealthy beliefs, coming to terms with your feelings, and monitoring your behavior around food. Your triggers will gradually move from the forefront to the background of your life. Not only that, you'll increase your confidence and self-trust and start to experience the pure joy that comes from making peace with food and taking care of yourself with consideration and compassion.