Isn’t it ironic that, at a time of year when we’re supposed to take a break, relax and enjoy ourselves, we often get frantic and stressed out instead? And we know the upshots of that state of mind all too well – there are ginger biscuits, yule logs, chocolates and mince pies all around us… until we get our hands on them!
Anxious eating, or comfort eating, really is a product of our brains being extremely efficient… but we’re not stuck with it – as with any behaviour, it can be changed or replaced with a different, healthier one.
Think about the distant times when, like other wild creatures, we lived symbiotically with nature: food was not guaranteed, and when our ancestors found a calorie source to get their hands on, their brains made sure they experienced pleasure and remembered to go back for more!
The same trigger-reward-behaviour drives us today. Except that, thanks to our species’ flexibility and creativity, we have added emotional triggers to the ‘regular’ hunger ones. We have discovered that nice food makes us feel better when we’re down, too – or anxious, irritated, exhausted, stressed.
So what can we do about it? Actually, a lot – because we *are* in control, even if it doesn’t feel like that! When we approach life in a mindful way, we turn towards experience, as opposed to backing away, or battling, or ignoring it. We get close and intimate with our bodies, minds and emotions through interest and curiosity.
If we stop the automatic behaviour of reaching for the Quality Street tin, and observe the anxiety instead, we’ll find that it expresses itself through body sensations: tightness, tension, changes in temperature, burning, queasiness, and so on. How interesting! Keep exploring! And if you do, you will also probably find that those sensations are not fixed, but come and go.
At this point, you can congratulate yourself on two major achievements: firstly, you’ve stepped out of autopilot, and out of that vicious cycle of anxiety – you’re riding it, you’re not *in* it anymore. Secondly – and crucially – you’ve replaced the old behaviour! You have just swapped the reaching for the tin with the reaching inside, observing, exploring, taking an interest in your own inner processes. Well done! This is how you assert your choice over a behaviour that doesn’t serve your best interests.
Now all you have to do is keep practising, so that it becomes an automatic pattern, something that feels ‘second nature’. Whenever you are growing restless, irritable, anxious or stressed, and catch yourself heading towards the cupboard, thank your brain for looking out for you, then get curious about it all! What are you experiencing? Where? How? And now, has it changed? What about now?
And if you do choose to go for that crumble with ice cream, then savour it, notice it! Really, fully enjoy it! Let those reward brain cells rival the lights on the Christmas tree! And... psst... save me a piece!