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What You Resist, Persists: How to Stop Stuffing Down Emotions with Food

By Michelle May, M.D.

By Michelle May, M.D.

(A few years back I wrote the article below about my experience fasting for surgery. I am reprinting it today for a friend who is having surgery this week.)

Even healthy doctors end up on the other side of the stethoscope sometimes. No worries; I’m fine now but the experience was a wonderful reminder of how valuable it is to be able to “sit” with discomfort rather than trying to push it away. What does that have to do with “Am I Hungry?” you ask? Everything as it turns out.

Recognizing that I needed to have surgery, I found myself dreading the pre-op clear liquid diet. A person who names her company “Am I Hungry?” wouldn’t intentionally ignore her hunger signals, would she?

As I stocked up on tea, Jell-O, and bullion, I realized that I actually felt anxious about going 36 hours without food. The anxiety reminded me of times in the past when I automatically reached for food to make other uncomfortable feelings go away, like boredom or feeling overwhelmed. When I made the connection between how I felt just anticipating the discomfort of hunger (which I knew I would survive) and the discomfort of stress and other triggers (which I also knew I could survive), I realized that I had been given a gift. I had an opportunity to mindfully experience something I wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen but had no choice but to endure.

yoga centering hand poseThe moment I stopped resisting the idea and began to embrace it instead, my whole perspective shifted. I felt alive and in tune with my body and everything that was going on around me. I had previously considered canceling my morning hike because of the fast ahead, but now I relished every step, knowing it would be several weeks before I could climb my favorite trail again. Afterward I treated myself to one final yoga class and settled easily and deeply into “corpse pose” at the end of my practice despite the audible grumbling of my stomach.

As the day progressed, I mentally reviewed the details of each level of hunger on the Hunger and Fullness Scale (from Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) as I passed through it:

5 – No hunger or fullness
4 – Just hunger pangs; it’s my first awareness that I’ll need more fuel soon
3 – I’m definitely hungry now; my stomach is growling
2 – A growing emptiness in the pit of my stomach. My blood sugar must be dipping as I’m increasingly distracted by thoughts of food
1 – Ah yes, I am famished. Headache – check. Difficulty concentrating – check. Irritability – check. Why does every commercial seem to be about food? And why is my husband eating in front of me?

At one point, I actually laughed out loud, “Hey, this is just like I described in my book!” Since eating anything more than a cup of broth was not an option, I remained calm and introspective. Other than feeling less energetic than usual, nothing bad happened. The hunger would subside then come back stronger awhile later to remind me that I was still ignoring it.

All too often, we resist any sort of physical or emotional discomfort. As soon as we notice loneliness, anger, fear, stress, pain or other unavoidable suffering that comes with being human, we turn on the tube, shovel food in our mouths, have a glass of wine – or sometimes all three simultaneously. It’s as though we believe we can tune it out, shove it down, or drown it. Sooner or later, it comes bubbling back up to the surface, so we reach for our next quick fix.

What’s your fix? Shopping? Work? Sex? Chocolate? Exercise? Dieting? Perfection? It doesn’t matter; none of them work for long because what you resist, persists; and the longer, the stronger.

In our “Gotta feel good all the time” culture, we’ve been taught that buying more, eating more, or achieving more will keep us happy all the time. This is the greatest lie ever told and perhaps it is keeping you trapped in an endless quest to avoid feeling anything at all.

To be clear, your emotional and physical feelings (both wonderful and painful) are your body’s way of communicating your needs with you. Rather than pushing them away with food or some other quick fix, practice observing them, accepting them, even embracing them.

Here are some ways (also from Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) to “sit” with your feelings when you’re ready to try it:

  • Become aware of your breathing.
  • Sit with your feelings and watch how they naturally ebb and flow.
  • Write your feelings down, unedited, using a journal, computer or even a scrap of paper.
  • Complete the sentence: I feel… or I am… For example, “I feel lonely,” or “I am angry with my boss” or “I am worried about my children.”
  • Imagine there is a pressure valve on your body that you can turn to release some of your emotions. You can turn the valve higher or lower to control the flow of emotions.
  • Describe your feelings as a picture or a metaphor. Start with, “My feelings are like…” and compare them to a color, an animal, a familiar story, or whatever images surface.
  • Draw images or scribble on a pad of paper to see what emerges. • Talk about your thoughts and feelings out loud or into a tape recorder.
  • Discuss your feelings with a trusted friend or family member.
  • Seek the assistance of a counselor or therapist if you feel overwhelmed, scared or unable to identify or work through your emotions.

When I woke up in pain after surgery, my first impulse was to tense up and somehow try to make it go away. From somewhere, the lessons I learned during my fast emerged. I took a few deep breaths, asked for a back rub, and was soon back asleep. Sixty hours passed before I ate again (who knew hospital eggs could taste so good). Of course things are back to normal now-eating according to my body’s signals-and not chicken broth! I am grateful for the experience and to be honest, glad it was only temporary.

I absolutely don’t advocate fasting for weight loss and I’m not at all convinced that it’s necessary for cleansing despite all the crazy claims out there. However, that feeling of peace in the face of discomfort helped me finally understand why people fast for spiritual reasons.

It also left me more convinced than ever that asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” when you feel like eating is a wonderful first step for tuning into your true needs. But next time, instead of rushing in to make yourself feel better, simply remain present to the experience and the lessons you might discover in that moment.

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

One Comment

  1. Fantastic information and tips. I think you nailed it when you said people were afraid to feel their feelings. And we all have some “fix” even if it isn’t food.

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