I am not surprised that when I asked over Facebook what people would like my next blog to address, overcoming urges and even managing through the aftermath, was the top choice. Urges are often associated with fueling actions that seem uncontrollable. As it relates to eating behaviors, most minds will immediately think about overeating, binge eating and unwanted cravings/desires. Not only do these behaviors make us feel out of control, they often carry guilt, shame, and a lot of self-judgment. So, we have a bit of an onion to peal on this topic, yet I will also strive to give you tactical steps to overcome.
To set the table, the main, overt urges as they relate to our relationship with body and food include a) restricting, b) binging and c) purging: vomiting, excessive exercise, laxative abuse- all very hard on the body.
You may not be able to see or agree that restricting and excessive exercise are urges. Maybe you are even thinking you wish you had those urges. It is not your fault, and I don’t blame you for thinking this way if you do. While overeating, binge eating, and unwanted cravings/desires make us feel out of control, restricting and some forms of purging, like excessive exercise, make us feel in control. This is one reason why studies show restrictive-type eating disorders, like Anorexia, are often more difficult to treat vs. those like Binge Eating. Both are challenging, don’t get me wrong. It is important to point out, when I am working with clients who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder, there is at least a bit of restriction mentality as well. Many are also plagued by intrusive thoughts of good vs. bad foods and can even be long-standing, chronic dieters.
Diet culture has taught us we must control our hunger, suppress our appetites, watch what we eat, follow diets, not listen to, or trust our bodies, plus burn and earn what we do eat through exercise. And if you accomplish all of this, you will love yourself, attract love, and live a life worth loving, so the myth says. Do you see the hidden message? Control=Love. This is where the problem begins- with control and restriction! If you remember one thing from this blog, it is that your body has a job. She is your earthsuit missioned with keeping you alive. As you tell her she is wrong, unworthy, undeserving, must be controlled, and an assortment of other negative things, know she is only responding to the mistrust, misunderstanding, misuse, and missing love while doing her best to keep YOU going.
The Nutritional Piece:
When we purposely restrict overall intake (ex: keeping calories low and/or skipping meals), we shut down our abilities to listen to our bodies. This results in a complete disconnection and disassociation or a physical urge so strong it finally consumes every thought. Think about it this way: If a child is telling you they need something, and you ignore them, what happens? Some will either shut down and withdraw, while others begin screaming and crying. Both ways, you have an unhappy child. This is what happens for your body. If you don’t listen to her, she will shut down and/or begin screaming. No one enjoys a shutdown, screaming, crying child. What do we do? We try to soothe the child. In your body’s language, she says, “This is not good. We do not have enough. I better tell her loudly we are running low and need to eat asap. We might even want to stock up in case something is really wrong, and we don’t eat for a while again.” Like a rocket, in comes the urge to soothe…..not only to eat, but over consume.
Also, when we deprive ourselves of certain nutrition (ex: eliminating certain macronutrients), our bodies will not be satisfied. Now, each person can be different on their quantity needs based on genetics, activity level, current health concerns, and even stress; however, we ALL need protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Each macronutrient plays a significant role in your body. If one is missing, your body will cry like that unhappy child. For example, let’s say someone has decided to stop eating carbohydrates, which typically means the elimination of grains, starches, fruits, anything with sugar, and some dairy. Carbohydrates are a main energy source. If we eliminate our main energy source, our bodies begin to think, “Oh no, she isn’t giving us any energy. I better let her know we need some.” Enter right stage the urge for energy….carbs. Also, if you are legitimately tired (emotionally, mentally, and/or physically), your body will say the same thing.
I would be derelict if I didn’t mention blood sugar. This is a huge topic on its own, and I am neither a dietitian nor a doctor, but I understand your body would really like blood sugar to remain steady and at optimal levels. If you eat something that spikes your blood sugar, you will often feel an ensuing drop that leads to an urge. Here is an example. Let’s say you just had a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal for breakfast (ha, my favorite cereal as a child). You may notice a crash in energy two-three hours after. At that time, you consequently may want-need-have an urge to stabilize…grab something fast and convenient.
The Emotional Piece:
How many times have I heard someone say, they are just an emotional eater? So many that I cannot put a number to it. The urge to specifically overeat and binge eat can stem from the inability to cope with and process uncomfortable feelings. The urge acts as a distraction from emptiness, sadness, buried anger, fear, loneliness, boredom, and guilt, to name a few. Substances such as alcohol, caffeine and certain refined carbohydrates are rewarding to your brain chemistry, which produce more positive feelings in the moment thanks mainly to a dopamine release. Therefore, if you are having a strong emotional urge, you are likely going to choose something like ice cream, chips, candy, or fast food. On a side note, hormonal fluctuations, changes and imbalances, can also create an urge to seek highly palatable foods. In addition to a distraction, the urge can be an escape. Yes, these two are different, although they often exist in tandem. The escape urge shows up when someone is trying to avoid something. With this specific urge there is a mindlessness and unconscious component. Almost like the urge strikes, and the actions take the individual into autopilot mode. Add scrolling through social media or watching TV to the mix, and the escape is more expansive.
Also, we are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders by nature; in essence to avoid pleasure creates psychological pain. This creates an urge to fill our pleasure cup. For so many, once this urge results in having the pleasure they deemed bad, their minds go into the state of, “Well, I have already messed up now; I might as well eat as much as I can.”
To summarize the origins of urges as it pertains to behaviors with food:
- You are not getting enough calories, or you chronically diet (aka yo-yo)
- You are skipping meals and lack an eating rhythm
- You are not getting adequate nutrition
- You are not getting enough rest or sleeping well
- You have a restricting mindset and are depriving yourself of pleasure
- You have unstable blood sugar or hormonal changes/irregularities
- You have an inability to cope with uncomfortable emotions
- You want to avoid and escape
“So, Sarah, what do I do???” To change any behavior, we must raise awareness first. Ask yourself, how many of those eight apply to you? Before you get completely overwhelmed, please keep reading. As a coach, one of my responsibilities is to simplify strategies, making them attainable.
This is also not a checklist of things to fix, but rather items to set intentions around. Here is the great news! Improving even just ONE can make a big difference! 😉
- Stop dieting! Anti-diet doesn’t mean anti-health. It just means you are no longer willing to believe myths and ignore your body by following rules that are unsustainable. Your body will teach you what she needs if you are willing to listen, trust, learn, have patience, and care for her. Remember, restricting feels like control, so saying good-bye, even if you want to, can seem scary. That’s okay.
- Create an eating rhythm that fits your schedule and lifestyle. Rhythm is defined as a regular, recurring sequence.
- Chose balance! Aim for protein, fat, and carbs at every meal; two of three for snacks.
- Make rest a priority. Creating a nighttime routine, which includes shutting off technology at least an hour before bedtime, is very effective.
- If you really want something, give yourself permission to truly enjoy it. Don’t comprise. Go slow, take smaller bites, be in the moment, smell it, taste it, and feel it dancing in your mouth.
- Find other ways to experience pleasure. Ask, what brings you happiness and joy? Do those things!
- Explore the vast array of self-care and coping skills to determine which you love most. You cannot know until you try. If one doesn’t work, try another. There are five overarching coping categories, and most people find they have one or two they gravitate to mostly. Once you know “your categories,” it is so much easier to figure out what is helpful. Here are the categories with two examples beside each: a) Recreation: going for walk, yoga b) Relaxation: bubble bath, massage, c) Responsibility: house chores, creating a to-do list, d) Reflection: journaling, artistic expression, e) Reaching Out: calling a friend, praying.
- When you feel an urge….pause. After reading this, I hope it is evident that our urges are just messengers, a special signal from our bodies telling us something isn’t right. The intensity fades within 20-minutes. Set a timer on your phone before reacting. Be still with your thoughts and feelings, listening to what the urge is telling you. If after 20-minutes you still feel compelled to act on the urge, then choose to slow the experience down, continuing to try to listen and learn. Great wisdom can come from these moments if we permit them.
Succumbing to the urge may create shame and guilt. The #1 way to overcome these heavy emotions is by having self-compassion. Some may think of this as a “hall-pass,” believing they deserve punishment for “messing up.” However, guilt and shame never help. You can practice self-compassion by a) thinking about what advice you would give a friend or b) decide to accept that the situation is hard and take care of yourself in the moment.
Lastly, if all of this seems too tall of a mountain to climb, don’t go it alone. There are plenty of wonderful, professional helpers: Therapists, Coaches, Dietitians, Doctors, etc. The key is finding one with whom you can connect!
With love and light – Sarah Lee