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Feelings... Whoa Whoa Whoa, Feelings
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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One of the frequent questions I get is about emotional eating and stress. Fitness people rarely go around talking about feelings, but hey, I'm not proud. If you don't like topics like this, just skip to the next article.

You already know that your body is the way it is because it has adapted to the environment you've given it. Your genes aren't the problem, and even a "slow metabolism" will speed up if you build muscle and stabilize your blood sugar. But if snacking, eating junk food, skipping workouts, laying around all day, or keeping a poor sleep schedule are the ways you deal with emotions and stress, you owe it to yourself to look squarely at the source of those problems, and you have to figure out more constructive ways to deal with them. If you aren't consciously aware of where you've set down your burdens, you'll unconsciously heap them onto your body or your relationships.

Your best refuges are faith, meditation, and the knowledge that you have a "better self." The first step is always awareness or "mindfulness" of what you're feeling. My advice about emotions might seem new or even odd unless you're familiar with meditation. But it will work anyway. Some of the following borrows from a technique suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh, an extraordinary Buddhist monk and friend. 

First, you have to remind yourself to breathe deeply when you encounter a strong emotion. When you ignore your emotions, they find ways to act themselves out, whether it's by eating or some other way. Think of an emotion as a crying baby that needs your attention. Breathe in, knowing that it's your in-breath. Breathe out, knowing that it's your out-breath. Continue that while you attend to the emotion you're feeling. Say to yourself "I feel frustrated ", "I feel angry " or whatever, and then smile at your frustration or your anger. The goal isn't to chase it away or even solve it on the spot. Just attend to it carefully, still breathing in, breathing out. That attention alone will calm it and reduce its power. 

If you're angry at someone, whether it's someone close to you or just a driver who cuts you off, realize that they are also suffering somehow. See the person as a vulnerable 5-year old child, and have compassion for that 5-year old, who has now grown up, possibly with ignorance, fear, anger, envy, anxiety, or difficulty finding happiness. Allow for the possibility that you've contributed to that suffering, which can be hard, but might be partially true. In any case, as soon as you feel anger, breathe. In your mind, smile to that 5-year old. You don't have to excuse bad actions, but have compassion for those you are angry with, because they also suffer. That alone will reduce your own anger, and its destructive effect on yourself.

If you feel an overwhelming temptation to "cheat" on your nutrition plan, the first thing to do is to get away from the temptation. If you don't want something negative in your life, don't hang around it imagining it won't affect you. Then, whether you can get away or not, focus again on your breathing. Sure, you've got this temporary feeling, but realize that it's just visiting for a little while and will go away if you just smile and say hello rather than going to war with it. Remind yourself of your goals and reasons for getting in shape. Or schedule the treat for your next "free day." My bet is that if you attend to your temptation mindfully for a moment, it will lose its power, especially if you can get away from the source or involve yourself in a better activity. If you try fight it or chase it away with your superhuman willpower, you'll just make it stronger. 

Look - in all things, when you take something away, you reveal something else. When people say they eat emotionally, they are really saying that when they take away the food, there's something else underneath that they don't want to deal with. So they eat. 

Most of your anxiety comes from the desire for reality to be different than what it is. But it's human nature to have both joy and suffering. Reality is what it is. The only way to get somewhere else is to first accept where you are now. It's like when you're at the mall, and you stand in front of a map that says "You are here." It does no good to argue with that little red arrow, or to wish you were somewhere else. You are here. The path to your goals has no other starting point. Accept reality as it is, where you are, and take your first step from here. 

The point isn't to solve your problem on the spot. The point is just to be mindful of your emotions and accept reality as a starting point so you don't feel any need to act out. Solving the problem takes the same sort of mindfulness, but also takes more time. If your faith is strong, you can pray about it and hand it to God. You might also look at your situation and map out your options, as long as you realize that new possibilities might emerge tomorrow that you haven't considered. In any case, remember to approach the problem by being your "better self." Leave anger, pride, getting even, and all that garbage behind, and be a person that you yourself can admire.

Whatever your suffering or problem or emotion is, don't run from it endlessly - welcome it like a visitor so that you can understand it better. Just breathe, sit with your emotion, recognize it, and smile at it. Do just that for several days, nothing more, and your emotion will gradually have less and less energy. You don't suppress it, or cover it up with food - you just recognize it, and start from there. In that simple act of recognizing your emotion, you stop being your emotion, and realize that you're something more.

You can smile at your sadness. You can smile at your anger. They're part of you, but you're more than that. If it feels natural, you can sit with your emotion like it's a visitor (emotions come and go, which is also important to remember), ask it questions, pray, think about constructive ways to change the situation, or forgive, or apologize, whatever the case might be. But start where you are. Breathe in, breathe out, and be your better self. Once you accept where you are as your starting point, you'll naturally figure out where to go next.

Oh, man. I've turned into a hippie.

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