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Riding the Wave of Undesired Urges: A Yin/Yang Approach to Changing Unwanted Eating Habits

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

I will never be the person/writer/clinician who shouts "stop doing the thing that hurts you, stupid!" And this is for several reasons.

The more obvious ones are that cruelty sucks and it doesn't typically inspire positive change. Another reason is that if you wanted to stop doing something and could, you would, and no amount of judgment from someone else could change that. Another reason is that it's up to no one but you to decide what you spend your time doing, even if that thing has negative connotations or impacts. And the last reason is that we know clear as day by now that deprivation only leads to increased desires, so white-knuckling through restriction is not a sustainable way of creating the life you want.

Barring acute danger and crisis, individual body autonomy is of the utmost importance when we discuss these matters, and you won't be getting any judgment from me on how/what/when/where/how much/how little you choose to eat. So when I share insights into how to manage cravings to binge eat, I don't do so with dogmatic moralism that says you should, but rather if you're wanting to empower yourself in the dance that food seems to be leading, these things may help.

In service not only to "behavior modification" but the valid and valuable emotions and beliefs that underlie those behaviors, here's a balanced (feminine) yin/(masculine) yang approach to discovering yourself while trying something new.

1. Recognize the rise and fall of the wave.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has a concept called "Urge Surfing." This concept essentially says that urges come through like waves, and we typically act on those urges at the peak of the wave's tension where it might feel unbearable not to. Urge Surfing implores us to hang tight in those moments and instead of acting on the urge, we might recognize the urge and trust that, like a wave crashing and settling back into smooth waters, our urge is likely to do the same.

This yang/masculine concept of managing urges helps normalize the urge at all, recognizing that you're not bad or weak for having the urge but that, if you'd like, the urge can be managed.

SMART Recovery, a 12-step alternative for alcohol addiction, uses the theory that if you wait 10 minutes and the urge hasn't subsided, you might want to consider changing your environment. The reasoning behind this is that once the wave crashes and settles and the tide starts to lower, your cravings should follow suit. But if they're still amplified, you may be around triggering stimuli that's keeping the urge alive.

Distracting yourself from food bingeing urges can also be a way to manage the moment but it tends to have temporary impacts. Instead, when and if it feels safe to, try this next step.

2. Turn your attention inward.

Somatic attunement during unwanted food urges can be helpful if you're feeling regulated and not in a state of unmanaged distress.

This yin (feminine) inclusion of somatic wisdom reminds us that our body is a great source of information and that, unlike social norms, we don't only need to hear our bodies when we're in states of pleasure of pain.

Somatic attunement essentially means you're listening and noticing sensations in your body. In this practice, it's important to observe without intention to judge, analyze, or "fix."

With regard to food, some questions that may be helpful to turn inward are:

  • What sensations are present and where?

  • Do you notice hunger in your stomach?

  • If you feel pain or emptiness that's believed to be hunger, where do you notice it?

  • Do any images or emotions arise as you tune into your body?

Let me be clear: if you're hungry, you should probably eat. This practice is not meant to convince yourself that you're not hungry or to justify skipping meals. In my post Psychotheraplay: Active Imagination I discuss a somatic exercise I did in my own therapy session after receiving messages to my brain that I was empty and needed food only to discover something else entirely. While it may sound silly, knowing the layout of your digestive system can help you discern whether an emptiness is coming from your stomach, likely indicating hunger, or elsewhere, perhaps indicating something else.

3. Create: Journal, draw, move.

Allow some space for expression and exploration. Journal the thoughts and emotions that arise (you can burn/shred/frame your writings to your heart's content thereafter). Give voice to your feelings, thoughts, imagination, and simply note what arises and moves through you. Don't fix, don't control, don't judge, don't qualify with your ego-mind, just observe and let it all out.

This yin (feminine) call to creativity is a necessary use of the imagination. By tapping into our unconscious mind through creativity and self-expression, we can not only shed all of the "shoulds" that might create the binge craving in the first place, we may also get to know ourselves more deeply and understand what we're actually hungry for.

In this creative space, you might also reflect on your day and how you felt throughout it. Were you in constant service to others and putting yourself last? Do you feel as though you have to edit yourself all day? Do you spend your day feeling inferior to others? These may be some reasons why getting lost in food feels so important right now. It's a call for you to be fed after a day of feeding others. What can you learn from this? How might you express it freely? And how can you take this new information and prioritize yourself more throughout the day so it doesn't all come crashing down in a nighttime binge?

This is not a space for judgment or productivity, simply curiosity.

4. Apply a food ritual.

The biggest ache for those who have wobbly food relationships is that we humble humans have to eat. Unlike those who can practice abstinence against their vice, those who struggle with food have to face it several times a day. So when you do eat, consider utilizing a ritual. Rituals can be a helpful way to contain energy and create meaningful space between activities.

It's worth noting that when I call food a vice, I don't mean food is a vice, but can be used as a vice in some instances. Food is food. We need it. We love it. That's alright.

This yin (feminine) concept of rituals honors the emotional, energetic, spiritual side of us by utilizing prayer, gratitude, and intention to keep us feeling empowered and mindfully engaged. However, the yang (masculine) component of structure and containment can make it safer to do so. In service to yang (masculine) organization, here’s a quick food ritual outline that you're encouraged to amend and personalize as desired:

  1. Plate your food and put the rest away, knowing full well you can return if you're still hungry or want to.

  2. Sit down in a designated meal space, not the couch or your bed, and certainly don't stand at the kitchen sink.

  3. Settle in to yourself, and your body. Notice what sensations may be present in your body or what emotions may be present. If you're feeling anxious, it may be wise to take a few deep breaths before you begin eating. Regulating your nervous system can help improve your body's ability to receive and digest food.

  4. Acknowledge that you're about to begin eating. In this moment you can pray or express gratitude for the meal, set an intention to eat slowly and enjoy your food, and celebrate the pleasure you're about to experience.

  5. Avoid distractions while you eat, unless it's good conversation.

  6. Eat slowly - this is the mindful part. Use your 5 senses to engage with your food. Look at its color and textures, smell its lovely aroma, explore the tastes that move about your tongue, and feel the food lowering into your body, filling you up with nourishment.

  7. Listen to your body. If you feel yourself become full and there's still food on your plate, honor your body and stop eating. If you've finished your plate and find you're still hungry, allow yourself more.

  8. Give yourself a few minutes at the table before officially deciding you're done. Avoid rushing off to the next thing if you can, and just be.

  9. Close the meal with another prayer or moment of reflection/gratitude to signal the end.

  10. Clean up your eating space and store/toss away anything you didn't eat. Move on to another area of your living space and begin a new activity.

A food ritual may sound a little strange and overly complex, I admit. But if you're filled with food-related anxiety, setting containment for a meal can help manage urges to restrict or binge. Too often we either fear food altogether, or squeeze it into our busy lives like some kind of nuisance and not the important exercise it is.

By prioritizing the meal over the distractions and slowing down your engagement with food, you repair your relationship to it. Incorporating mindfulness and somatic attunement helps you build up a new muscle memory which empowers you to tell the food what to do and not the other way around.

5. Remember your physiology.

If you've already eaten and you're experiencing cravings to continue, remember that there is a delay in fullness signals reaching your brain. You may physically still be seeking food when, in fact, you're full. This is okay, and if you want to eat beyond fullness, go for it! But for those who regret surpassing that point and eventually end up feeling physical pain due to extended eating, this can be a helpful little tip.

This yang (masculine) reminder can support the somatic attunement you explore by remembering the science: it can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness.

A quick tip can be to pause eating for 10-20 minutes once you believe you're done/full and revisit your body's request for more food once that time has passed. If you're still hungry, again, you should eat. If not, perhaps you've discovered something else in that waiting time.

6. Be kind to yourself.

This is always important to include, no matter the practice. Whether we nailed it, failed it, or some combination of the two, it's okay and there's always next time. In a ironic twist of fate, the less we allow ourselves mistakes, the more mistakes we tend to make. Many binges start from a place of feeling unworthy, having already "messed up," or like self-punishment is needed. Most restriction starts from a place of redemption, trying to correct a shortcoming from the meal or day before. Remove this obstacle by expressing some kindness and forgiveness to yourself.

This yin (feminine) quality of self-acceptance and self-compassion is so necessary and so often overlook in exchange for perfection, control, and goal-achieving. There are certain pressures we just can't rise to in our current state and that's okay. We need to make space for where we are not perfect, where we may have needs we don't entirely know about or understand. But if we can't have some inkling of compassion for ourselves, especially when the going gets tough, who are we doing it all for anyway?

Remember that the information provided here is intended to covey general information only and does not intend to replace or infer proper psychological diagnosis. No therapist/client relationship is implied or actualized through any contact with this website or its creators unless formally agreed upon in a proper clinical setting, which case emergency protocol has been discussed. See the resources page if you need additional help or emergency support.



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