In his amazing book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker discusses how trauma impacts a person’s ability to cope even years after the traumatic events in childhood. Even if you didn’t have your emotional or physical needs met in childhood, I strongly recommend reading this book. He has an excellent chapter on emotional flashbacks.
I think that most emotional eating embodies an emotional flashback. If you struggle with emotional eating, it is likely that food became an adaptive coping skill in childhood. It served to help you survive, but it is causing more problems than it is solving now. I have adapted his step by step approach to fit emotional eating. If you are reaching for food and you know you aren’t physically hungry, try this:
- Label it as a flashback. If your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the situation, you are likely in a flashback. Saying the word flashback will remind you that the pain is coming from the past, not the present.
- Assess for danger. If you aren’t currently in danger, remind yourself that you are safe now. Fear can’t hurt you.
- Do not accept abuse. It is healthy to walk away from conflict and relationships that are abusive.
- Check in with your child part. When you are in a flashback, you have an inner child that is begging you to see them. Identify the age of the part holding the pain. Look into their eyes and create space to connect with them. Like any young child, they need to be seen, heard and held. Ask them what they need.
- Recognize this feeling is temporary. No feeling is final. Remind yourself that you won’t feel this way forever.
- Get grounded in your body. When we are in a flashback, we immediately feel small. By reconnecting with your body, you can stay present. Breathe. Take slow grounding breaths in your nose and out your mouth.
- Challenge negative self-talk. It is easy to get in to the shame spiral of beating yourself up for feeling emotionally triggered. Be gentle and compassionate. Use ACT diffusion skills and CBT thought distortion challenges.
- Release tears. Don’t bottle up your emotion. Allow your child part to fully express their pain and grieve the losses associated with not having childhood needs met.
- Find someone safe to talk to. The quickest way out of an emotional spiral is sharing it with someone empathetic.
- Ask yourself what you are hoping to feel by eating. Identify the need you are trying to get met through food and try to find an alternative that is more compassionate and nurturing.