“But no matter what we use, we can’t selectively numb emotions--When we numb the dark, we also numb the light.” Rising Strong by Brené Brown, PhD, LICSW
One of the issues that clients come to me for is to work on stress-eating and overweight. Having trained in Obesity Medicine, and wrestled with my own eating and weight for many years, it’s an area I know well, and want to help others with. And stress-eating is pervasive amongst Physicians for a lot of reasons.
1.) During training, we often had to work long hours, without breaks, and would be very hungry by the time we were allowed to eat
2.) We learned to quickly satiate ourselves by scavenging food in the hospitals or clinic lounges, generally stale donuts, which we would eat quickly before running off to work again
3.) We are generally conditioned to “be professional” and not show emotions. And many of us never learned how to then come back to allow the emotions that we were hiding, we just shove them down deeper. And a good way to do that, is with food. Eat a bunch of cookies to feel better, instead of processing my anger or sadness.
This is a common pattern for many of us, and it often leads to weight gain. Though I will pause here to also note that another way of numbing for some is food-restricting, which is another symptom of unprocessed negative emotions with different, and significant consequences. I won’t focus on that here, but I acknowledge that it is a serious issue that some of us struggle with as well.
But the thing that we have to understand, in both conditions really, is that it’s not about the food. It’s really about our emotions, and how our avoidance of unpleasant emotions leads so many of us to numb with food. It can also be about us not taking breaks (see my post on “Who Give you Permission?” by clicking here) and then becoming ravenously hungry, but for many, it’s about numbing anxiety, stress, irritability, anger, inadequacy, sadness, grief and any number of other emotions that we don’t want to feel. We think that food will solve it. And for a whiff of time, it does.
But the problem with this (ok one of many problems with this) is that when we disconnect from negative emotions that we want to avoid, we also lose our ability to feel positive emotions. Joy, happiness, excitement, love, gratitude. The energy that goes into damming back the negative, and giving ourselves a bit of dopamine with treats, takes away our ability to feel good.
This is why at some point in our lives, it becomes really important to learn how to allow our feelings again. To not always be “strong,” and “calm.” This is not unique to Physicians, but it is very common because of our training, and it is another thing that we have to unlearn.
A way to start doing this is to start naming our feelings. What is the emotion? When something is happening and you have an emotion, what is it? What is happening in your body? So if I start to become angry, I could say to myself “I am feeling angry,” and I could choose to notice it, and think about why I’m angry. That simple practice creates space; space to be in awareness, space to pause before reacting, and space to allow the emotion to lose some of its grip over me.
When we start to allow the negative emotions into our lives and make space for them (because we all experience negative and positive emotions; life if 50/50), we learn to stop eating, drinking, scrolling, etc to numb them. We also make space for more positive emotions to come back into our lives.
If this is something you would like help with, I encourage to click here and set up a free call with me. I coach Physicians on difficult emotions, including stress, overwhelm and burnout, and help them create healthier habits. I love doing this work, and you’ll love learning how to feel better, and get out of stress-eating.