Winning strategies for conquering nervous hunger
Do you often find yourself devouring food when you’re stressed, tired, or feeling lonely?
You may not know it, but you may suffer from “nervous hunger”, an uncontrollable impulse that leads you to wolf down large amounts of food without any apparent physical need.
The repercussions, though, are clearly evident on the scale, on your mood, and also on your self esteem.
The disorder, also known as “emotional eating”, in reality isn’t even related to gluttony. People who eat this way often don’t much care what kind of food they eat, because the only thing they’re looking for is the act of eating itself and the sensation of feeling full.
What triggers it?
The reasons are psychological: when you eat, you can escape from reality and focus on physical sensations instead of problems.
But there are biological reasons too: food changes brain chemistry when it comes into contact with the taste buds. Many foods, and carbohydrates in particular, are natural antidepressants, they increase the levels of serotonin and make you feel relaxed. And when you eat, your body releases dopamine, a natural substance that creates pleasure.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last, because after you pig out, not only are your problems still there, but now you also feel bad about having overeaten.
A problem that takes many forms
While overeating is the final experience that’s the same for everyone, emotional eating has many different forms. It all depends on what triggers the anxiety process:
- The sensitive eater: everything’s fine, and then all of a sudden feelings well up in you that you can’t manage, and they send you off in search of all the food you can lay your hands on.
- The stressed eater: after a long, hard day at work or at school, as soon as you step through the door you become wildly hungry like an animal that’s been penned up all day.
- The bored eater: you’re alone and you feel a little anxious, because nothing is happening to distract you from an empty feeling you feel lurking below the surface. And food becomes the only way to fill it.
How do you fight it?
If you’re feeling defeated because, despite your best efforts, you just can’t beat the impulse to eat, cheer up: willpower has nothing to do with it.
From the psychological point of view, an attack of nervous hunger is comparable to an altered state of consciousness. At that moment, basically, it’s as if you’re not yourself, and the methods that work in managing normal behaviors become completely ineffective. Your willpower will have the same effect as an ocean wave against a cement wall.
But there’s good news: where reason fails, you can instead fight nervous hunger on the same field – the emotional field. Nervous hunger is as aggressive as it is unstable, and that makes it relatively easy to dupe it. Here are a few tricks that can help you regain control of the situation when an attack of hunger hits you:
1) Play for time
Does hunger command you to get up and throw yourself into the pantry? Does a flat out “no” do no good at all? Well then, tell it to wait 10 minutes. Incredibly, often this is enough time to quash even the most ferocious attacks.
2) Distract and substitute
What your emotional hunger is really looking for is not food, but emotional comfort. That means that you need to find a comfort mechanism that doesn’t entail eating.
Find something that gives you joy, something simple and immediate you can do: listen to music, take a bath, go out for a walk, have a massage, read a book. You can write your list on a piece of paper and put it up where you can always see it. By swapping these activities for the compulsive eating, you’ll always ensure yourself a good level of endorphins, which help reduce your need to self-satisfy with food.
Nervous hunger is overwhelming, but also surprisingly flexible in terms of what kind of food it wants you to eat.
Get out ahead of it: if you keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks that won’t sabotage your diet and your self esteem, you and your hunger can stay a lot calmer, until the day you can finally cut it out of your life for good.
Take control of the situation: it’s the only way to start working on methods for preventing this problem, with the right psychological support, learning to manage stress and strong feelings without relating them to food.