Picture this... Its the end of the day, you're not really hungry but maybe in the mood for a snack. You go to the fridge and reach for a piece of cheese, some crackers, maybe some hummus. Twenty minutes later you've consumed half the box of crackers, the better part of the cheese and hummus along with a leftover breakfast burrito and some pasta from the night before. Throw in maybe a few handfuls of granola and a couple of protein bars covered with peanut butter because you don't keep "bad" foods in the house. You head off to sleep but maybe don't sleep the whole night through because you're waking up with an upset stomach. The next morning you feel dehydrated and puffy and not hungry at all. Until the evening hits...
During times of stress the body goes into fight or flight mode. This mode triggers our stress hormones which sometimes can feel quite addictive, giving us a high feeling that helps to numb pain and other physical sensations such as hunger. But here is the catch- what goes up must come down. When we numb our feelings of hunger we also are not able to feel our fullness. When the adrenaline high wears off our appetite seems uncontrollable. Furthermore, chronic stress can longterm elevate the hormones that make us feel hungry. This is our body compensating for the uncertainty of when the next meal or chance to rest is coming. Have you even been through a break up where you stopped eating and lost ten pounds only to quickly regain it in the following months? That's why.
What should you do if you don't feel hungry OR are ravenously hungry during the day? Follow my tips below to help manage stress. The goal is to shift our nervous system from fight or flight to rest and digest.
If we are going 100 miles an hour all day long chances are the night will come to a screeching halt right into a retaining wall made out of a giant burrito supreme, a large side of guac and chips and a quesadilla to seal the deal. Also, if you have a long day and no rest in sight mealtime may be the only semi-relaxing time built into your day. You may eat more in one sitting than you physically need just to soothe yourself.
Do schedule regular mealtimes 4-5 hours apart. Even if you only have 15 minutes spend at least one minute of that break practicing breathing exercises. I tell clients to do a five senses meditation where they close their eyes and try to identify what they are feeling. Give this feeling a smell, sound, temperature, texture and color. If you are still not hungry read a couple pages of a book or do something relaxing. Pumping the brakes regularly a few times throughout the day ensures you don't crash.
Feel it to Heal it
A certain level of decorum is required to function as an adult in this world however constantly having to "put on a happy face" or power through difficult situations is a real energy suck. When we suppress our emotions we are more likely to feel no connection to our physical hunger which can manifest as zero appetite or bottomless pit (or any combination of the two). When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings we can get clear and take appropriate action. Getting to the root cause of what is messing with your appetite is way more sustainable than constantly triaging emotions by starving them or stuffing them down.
Take a piece of paper and write down all your negative emotions, judgements about yourself, reasons why you don't deserve what you truly want. Let this be free flowing. Write about the guy who tried to negotiate your pay rate down, the friend who said you should't eat potatoes because they are too "starchy." Write about how your mom said in the 8th grade your thighs were too big to wear flare jeans or how your nose was too big to wear your hair parted down the middle. Scribble on about how you're pissed at yourself for getting that parking ticket and being late to that appointment. Let it all out. The rip it up and throw it out with the cat litter or burn it safely if that's your thing.
What we have here is a classic chicken and the egg situation. Are we unhappy because we overate or did we overeat because we are unhappy? We have established not all problems can be solved by eating or skipping meals however feeling out of control around food can wear away at our self-esteem. A better relationship with rest and nourishment affects all our other relationships and vice versa.
Now it's time to focus on what makes our bodies feel good. Continue the mindfulness tips above and set appropriate boundaries, whether is is not overscheduling yourself or cutting back on going to the in-laws if it's going to create a binge situation. Plan foods you like that make you feel good and that are easy to digest and try to work those into your regular mealtimes. Recognize that at first reconnecting with physical hunger is a process and especially if you are out of practice this may take a second. Always reach out for help if you could use support bridging structure and flexibility.
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