I recently had one of those days, maybe you know the kind. During the day, I was absorbed in meaningful connections with loved ones. Still, as the day drew to an end, I found myself feeling heavy, physically and emotionally in ways that I had not anticipated.  

As I contemplated this heaviness, I readily assessed the impact of having eaten fried food and more of it than was comfortable. This dinner choice had been the result of calculating the least bad of the bad choices that seemed viable as the hour grew late. 

However, in the stillness of my drive home, I realized the heaviness was more than the physical effects of the food and that the food choice was more than a result of the poor planning. In hindsight, I recognized that I was unsettled by some unexpected information received that day.  As I considered the influences on me and thought more fully about the connections between my food choice and emotional impacts around that day, I received what I’m calling a “duh epiphany." 

In addition to general layers of awareness of emotional eating, a new layer of understanding also emerged about opportunities to simply notice the unsettledness in my body without having to do anything about it immediately. This duh epiphany revealed that this sort of mindfulness is both fundamentally beneficial on its own and it is also the most likely way to access any of those other layers of insight anyway, since by noticing my body, I may be more able to take care of it when I eat. As with most duh epiphanies, this one was both profound and simple. 

With this hindsight, I noticed my pattern of holding distress tightly inside while moving through what I perceive as the most appropriate or, when relevant, the safest actions. This pattern has numerous benefits. Yet, as seen in the impact of the mindless food choices I made that evening, immediate expediency for one factor is sometimes to the detriment of another. 

We all have blind spots of vulnerabilities in our automatic responses to stress. The higher the level of stress, the more these vulnerabilities might be beyond our awareness or at least seem beyond our ability to manage. I did not believe myself to be in danger on this particular day.  Ironically, that fact is part of what blinded me to my own needs. Since the distress I experienced was mostly a result of past reminders and it was able to perceive the difference between history and the present — seeing that everyone was safe — I did not notice the impact of the reminders. I did not listen to the tightening of my muscles that were trying to tell me of my need. 

With the clarity of hindsight, I was able to notice the tightness in my neck and shoulders and to realize I had been building it through the day. I was able to consider the positive impact that would have been likely with even briefly taking time to observe this communication from my body earlier.  

It is easy to find articles, books and encouragement from friends and family about understanding common causes of emotional eating, identifying your own patterns of emotional eating, making a good plan to take better care of the emotions and eating patterns, enacting the plan and adjusting the plan; this can include professional help when that is useful. All of these steps are vital. 

Though, with this day, I was reminded that even the best plans are only beneficial when we can realize that it is time to use them. Allowing even a little space of time to notice need can be an enormous step. This step can naturally point attention to any of the information that may have been gathered or plans that have been made, allowing an opportunity to try. I missed that chance on that day. 

I frequently comment to clients and others that “growth happens backwards.” That is, we start to grow when we recognize a pattern that we want to change. But then, we almost always still repeat the same pattern and do not even realize it immediately.  At some point later, we look backwards and identify the pattern again.  

It is tempting to feel discouraged and even be self-critical when we see this repetition.  Indeed, I was discouraged and self-critical for a while on my drive home. After all, I “should” have known better. In fact, I had been thoughtful in advance about my emotions and about ideas for my dinner. 

So, I have to practice what I teach about growth. With backwards growth, we have repeated occasions for learning, adjusting and practicing, which generally builds progress across time toward what is more beneficial and sustainable. To be sure, I expect a lot more backwards growth to apply this duh epiphany.

Emotional eating is common and each person’s vulnerabilities vary. But we each have the possibility to pause even briefly to check information our muscles, breathing or any other part of our body might give us about our needs as we are managing stressful situations. And, thankfully, we can each learn backwards and can boost that benefit by reminding ourselves of its usefulness. 

As we repeat our backwards growth, our body can point us to needs so we can have more options to take care of ourselves.

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Mary McKinney, MA, LMFT McKinney Marriage and Family Therapy Calls and texts: (828) 263-4113

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