My eight-year old son went back to school this week. There is a lot of talk in the neighborhood about which teacher gives the most homework and how different third grade is from second grade. They will learn multiplication tables and how to write in cursive (not sure why they don't give touch typing lessons instead) along with so much new information. It got me thinking about how much time we spend in our lives getting an academic education. I was in school for twenty years, and even now, fifteen years out of university I still frequently take courses when I can. However, there isn't any obligatory, state-funded emotional education to navigate the stressful waters we sail in during our lives. By keeping that in mind perhaps you can forgive yourself when you find yourself reaching for food to deal with stress (or boredom, or anger, or loneliness, or grief, or sadness or any other feeling) instead of having the skills to handle those feelings head-on.
How can we start to give ourselves, and each other, the emotional education we didn't receive in school so we can fulfill ourselves instead of filling ourselves with food?
1. IDENTIFY -- First off, learn how to identify what you're feeling. Many of us don't even know what's going on for us, we just feel uncomfortable and want it to go away. I can't tell you how many people tell me what an epiphany they had when they realized they weren't hungry but tired and how they've since learned to simply put themselves to bed rather than eat at night. Start to identify what you feel. Are you angry? Tired? Bored? Do you need validation? Affection? Help?
2. RESPOND - Start to make associations about which feelings need which responses. I often say that feelings are like weather. They are a naturally occurring part of living in the world. There is rain. Sun. And storm. If you live in a place with less than idyllic weather, you have to learn what kind of coat, shoes, gloves and hat can get you through the day comfortably. You know you need an umbrella when it rains or sunblock when it's bright. Feelings are no different. As adults (and we can teach this to our children too), we need to know what we need when we're sad. Overwhelmed. Anxious. By understanding what we really need when these inevitable changes in mood occur, we can offer ourselves real comfort, real understanding and real responses to real needs rather than simply eating to survive the feeling until the next time.
3. PLAN AHEAD - As you come to identify your feelings and know what you need to respond to them, you can plan ahead. If you know that Sunday nights make you anxious because the work week is the next day, you can have a ritual that makes Sunday night easier. For instance, a yoga class, a board game with the family, a bath and meditation. If you know that you get anxious and overwhelmed when the kids need to be put to bed, you can devise a system that makes it easier or ask for help.