We’ve all had those stressful days where things have not gone as planned. Where do we want to turn? Is it the freezer for some nice cool, smooth, mint chip ice cream? Is it the closet for the bag of crunchy, salty chips? Or is it the bread drawer for some warm crispy, buttery toast? We each have our favorites but not one of them has our best interests at heart when it comes to self soothing and resorting to these in this way can often lead to guilt or regret the minute they are done.
The Stress Response
Stress makes our heart race, our body tense, and our thoughts spin at a kinetic pace. We get in a frenzy, lose perspective on what is important and search out quick fixes to make us feel better at that moment. But you can train yourself to reach out for nonfood alternatives to get through the frenzy. They might not “hit the spot”, but they will hit a different spot and actually be more effective on controlling the physical symptoms of stress without leading to the guilt. They will also put you in control of your emotions by successfully addressing the symptoms and help you to recognize those symptoms before they escalate.
Strategies for Self Soothing
- Just as a good gardener lays down compost and tills the soil for good crop production, you must cultivate yourself in order to be your best. Mindful practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong, and meditation help you connect with your body through the breath. When you concentrate on your breath, making it deep and slow, breathing in through your nose, expanding into your belly, and slowly breathing out through your mouth you not only slow your heart rate and increase carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange, you also stop the frenetic spinning of your thoughts. Like your car tires in snow, when you put the car in a lower gear your get better traction.
- Take a walk or get some other form of exercise for fifteen minutes. This reduces stress hormones, gives our minds a break and helps feelings of hunger to pass.
- Drink a cup of warm chamomile, jasmine or peppermint tea. The heat of the water and the choice of herbs will sooth your stomach and relax you. Often times our mind confuses hunger for thirst. And green tea is full of cancer-preventing and heart health promoting antioxidants.
- Create a soothing place. In your bedroom, or office, take a corner and create a space that will touch all your senses. Add a peaceful peace of art for visual calming, a fountain for soft noise, a smooth stone to rub while you gradually release tension, a CD with relaxing music, and some calming aromas like lavender to smell. Stimulating our other senses can prevent the impulse to mindlessly eat.
- Before caving in to a craving, connect with your senses. Take a moment to see how many things you can hear, how many visually appealing things you can see, how many physical symptoms you feel by doing a body scan. Cravings pass and this technique allows enough distraction to allow the craving to pass.
- Massage your body. Take a small amount of lavender, lemon, sage, or chamomile oil, and massage into your hands and then gently massage your neck, your shoulders, your forehead and the area above your eyes. These areas often take the brunt of our stress and will love the gentle appreciation.
- Identify your hunger. Is it truly the stomach growling, dull ache, hollow feeling or is it mouth hunger, that little voice that says you want a little “something-something”. It is natural to feel hungry 4-5 hours after a meal. It is not natural to feel hungry 2 hours after eating. That kind of hunger comes from either eating a meal of “white” carbs, like rice cereals, white pasta or bread, not eating enough at a meal or from feelings of emotional hunger, not stomach hunger. To avoid the first two situations make sure to eat at each meal cereals, breads or crackers that are whole grain, a fruit or veggie and a lean protein with a little bit of healthy fat. An example for breakfast would be 3/4 cup cooked old fashioned oatmeal topped with one tablespoon of chopped walnuts and a quarter cup of low-fat Greek yogurt. A lunch or dinner might be a large green salad with light balsamic dressing, 1/2 cup of tuna, 1/2 cup Three Bean Salad and a fruit. If you have eaten a balanced meal and 2 hours later your are feeling hungry know that most likely it is due to emotional hunger.
You Can Soothe Yourself
Learning to recognize symptoms of stress before they escalate out of control, finding effective coping strategies to get through a stressful episode and taking charge of emotional hunger teaches us skills and gives us confidence that overflows into other aspects of ones life. You can have that small bowl of ice cream, that serving of potato chips or that slice of crunchy, buttery toast, but have it on your terms when you have planned for it, not when you are feeling stressed and are looking for a temporary fix. The five minutes of pleasure will only lead to hours of regret and unwanted weight gain.