In order to change our unwanted behaviour, it’s important to become aware of what triggers it.
For example, often, when we react in a negative way in a particular situation with another person, we are not reacting to the situation itself. Chances are, that person has pushed one of our buttons, such as a core shame that was developed many years ago.
There used to be many occasions when someone might say to me, “Oh, you didn’t know that?” and my entire face and neck would get hot and I would get sweaty. Within seconds, my shame button was triggered. I wasn’t smart enough. My reaction was defensiveness. I would either respond in an attack to discharge my own negative feelings or I would shut down completely—neither great options in terms of coping strategies.
But after working on my core shame, two things have happened: 1) The number of times I am triggered has been reduced by 80 per cent. When someone now says in seeming surprise, “Oh, you didn’t know that?” I don’t feel a reaction in my body, most of the time.
My response is ownership, honesty, and curiosity. “No, I didn’t,” I say. “But I’m really interested. Can you please explain it to me?” 2) When I am triggered, I am now aware of what the signals are in my body and can catch myself much sooner.
I have more space with which to activate my self-compassion and bring myself back down to neutral so that I can choose a more productive response.
This shame of not being smart enough, of feeling stupid, was also activated at the weight loss camp. After some reflection, I realized what was happening to me. The stress of my first job out of graduate school was making me call into question my capabilities, and whether I would be able to handle the job.
It was hitting on my core “I’m stupid” button, which had been developed many years earlier in my childhood home with a father who was a successful doctor, an older sister who became another successful doctor, and another sister who turned to law and policy to help protect women and children across the world. The bar was high, and I never seemed to reach it. My core shame came in the form of “I’m not smart enough or capable enough.”
And here I was in my first real job unable to hack it.
We all have core triggers, and when we react in a negative way (such as turning toward unhealthy or large amounts of food to cope), it usually means one of those has been activated. Instead of reacting to the trigger, I learned to get curious about what was really going on.
I learned that I can dig deeper into myself to understand my reactions and which hot buttons are being triggered. Perhaps more importantly, I also learned that as a counsellor, I needed to facilitate an environment of compassion and ask the right questions so that I could explore others’ core triggers underlying their eating patterns.
When I incorporated this strategy into my practice as a therapist, the results showed that clients’ desire for food decreased while self-care, compassion, and respect increased.
Sometimes our desire or compulsion to turn toward food is about stress. Therefore, we need alternate ways to reduce and manage stress. Here are some strategies you can use that will help you alleviate and better cope with stress.
1. Get physical.
As we’ve discussed, physical activity is one of the best outlets there to reduce and manage stress. When we are stressed, we build up negative energy inside us that comes out in some very unhealthy ways. (Just ask my husband about “Scary Jaime”!) Any form of physical activity will dispense that energy and provide you with more space to think clearly. If running is your thing, run it out!
You know that expression, “Walk it off”? Totally works. Throw on your favourite tunes and strut your stuff. If tennis is your jam, slam that ball! Add in the grunt if you want. Trust me, it feels great. If you’ve always loved to dance, dance it out! Whether it’s in your living room, bedroom, or at a dance class, let the music fill your body and let go! Find an activity that you enjoy and get out there. I promise you it works.
2. Practise yoga.
Yoga is all about finding calm and peace. It’s about quieting the mind and being in the present moment. All of the thoughts from the past and the future are stopped, and you can just focus on your breath and being where you are. The first time I tried a yoga class, I admit it was a bit of a mess. I felt so awkward and silly, which resulted in a fit of giggles, which then got me kicked out of the class. Why downward dog was so funny, I’ll never know. Regardless, I went back and did it again. So don’t give up after the first class. As with anything new, it will take time to learn and adjust. Stick with it because, again, it works.
3. Try meditation.
Similar to yoga, meditation is all about finding calm in the present moment. There are several types of meditation, such as guided, unguided, or walking. We’ll talk more in-depth about meditation in the chapter on anxiety and depression. But for now, check out the Calm or Headspace apps on your phone. Test out a few meditations to see what feels like the right fit for you.
4. Get counselling.
Of course, as a practising psychotherapist, I’m biased, but speaking with a counsellor is another effective strategy for not only dispensing your stress but also learning tools and techniques to manage it more effectively. This is also the place to work through the deeper issues that underlie your stress. There are many therapists out there, and you may have to try out a few before you find the one who is right for you. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you a few different people before you find the right one. This is the most important work you will do in your life, and finding the right match for you is half the battle. You and your therapist are a team, and you must feel there is a nice groove between you. At the end of your first session, ask yourself, “Do I like this person? Do I feel comfortable with this person?”
If so, go back for a second session. You are not locked in, so take it one session at a time. If it feels good for you, book another one. As long as it feels good and you’re getting value from the sessions, keep going. Sometimes you meet the goals you set out to achieve, or you’ve taken all you can from the therapist and it’s time to move on. However, if you find that right fit, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you. It could change everything.
5. Start journaling.
Journaling is another great strategy for letting go of all the noise that’s taking up space in your mind. While it may be the same thoughts that are roaming like a virus through your beautiful brain over and over, journaling is a way of moving them from your head to paper so that you don’t have to carry them anymore. The other very cool thing about journaling is that sometimes seeing your thoughts visually can give you another perspective that makes you realize that things really aren’t as bad as you once thought. So get writing, people! While you’re at it, jot down a couple of things every day that you’re grateful for. It could be sunshine and a blue sky, your partner emptying the dishwasher without being asked, or taking twenty minutes for yourself to curl up with a book, magazine, or loved one. Focusing on the good stuff in our lives helps lessen the bad stuff and reminds us that there is so much more good we have.
6. Sing it out!
Research shows that singing even ten minutes a day helps elevate your mood and reduce stress. Not much of a singer? Doesn’t matter! As long as you enjoy singing, that’s all that counts here. So sing along to “All I Want for Christ- mas Is You” by Mariah Carey or all the lyrics to the Hamilton soundtrack. Just belt it out and release.
7. Be social.
Therapists are great listeners. You know who else are great listeners? Friends. That’s right. If you select the right one, they will listen to your struggles with compassion, validate your feelings, empathize, and hold you when you need to cry it out. Going out with friends or having them over for a good time also helps take your mind off of your stress. As they say, laughter is the best medicine!
8. Have a good cry.
Speaking of which, crying is another amazing stress reliever. You know how people say they feel much better after a good cry? That’s because their body is releasing cortisol, the stress hormone. So get crying! You need to release that stress, and if it wants to come out through your eyes, let it. Some people can cry whenever they feel like it. If you are not one of those people and you need a little push to get you over the edge, might I recommend listening to “On My Own” from Les Misérables or anything by Air Supply, or watching any episode of Grey’s Anatomy? Seriously: any episode of Grey’s will leave you in tears. It is the reason I watch the show. Whatever gets your tear ducts flowing, just let it out. Then spend some time with friends. Social connection is another way to elevate the mood and reduce stress.
9. Find a hobby.
Here, I’m talking about hobbies such as photography, pottery, painting, drawing, writing, birdwatching, and sumo wrestling. Whatever hobby brings you joy, do it! If collecting seashells makes you happy and allows you to forget everything going on in the world, rock on! Maybe you haven’t had a hobby since you were a kid. That’s okay. Think back to when you did. Maybe it’s been right there all along, waiting patiently for you to come back. Maybe it’s rock climbing, mini-putt, or making crafts. Whatever it is, own it. Live it. The more joy you can bring into your life on a regular basis, the more manageable your stress will be.
10. Get with nature.
Often, the business and chaos of the city is enough to elevate anyone’s stress levels. The honking horns, the traffic, the pollution! This is when it’s time to get out for a walk in the woods or by a body of water. Of course, I’d love to be on a beach with my feet in the warm sand, while listening to and watching the ocean waves. Let’s be honest, though, it’s not always possible. But there are usually parks and nature hikes within city limits or a short drive away that can make you feel as though you are far away. Breathe in some fresh for-est air. Feel the ground beneath your feet and remind your- self that Mother Nature’s got you. Just breathe deeply and put one foot in front of the other. Walk along a path or sit by the water, watching the sun make the waves sparkle. Listen to the sounds of the water hitting the rocks and just breathe.
11. Laugh out loud.
Remember when I said to bring more joy into your life? Well, what could be more joyous than laughter? Whether it’s setting up every unsuspecting member of your family with a whoopee cushion, buying a handheld device that has twelve different fart sounds on it (yes, I do own this and use it at any given opportunity), or watching a comedy show, bring more laughter into your life. I’m re-watching old episodes of Friends. Whatever tickles your Elmo, make it happen. Laughter makes us feel good, which reduces stress. In the words of Han Solo, “Laugh it up, Fuzzball!”
All of these strategies I’ve outlined here are helpful in not only alleviating stress but also preventing us from turning to negative coping mechanisms such as emotional eating.
When we turn to food to relieve a stressful situation, we are actually reacting to the triggering of a core shame. In order to change our behaviour, we must first get curious about our core triggers and the way we speak to ourselves. Only when we have a deeper understanding of our underlying issues and the situations that bring them to the surface can we begin to challenge and change them.
And that starts with getting curious rather than being judgemental. Then it’s about self-compassion.
It’s about finding opportunities on a daily basis to practise acts of kindness, compassion, patience, love, and forgiveness toward yourself and others.