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Q I know I can’t be the only one struggling with this question, but I am wondering if you have any advice on how I can avoid turning to food for comfort when I’m upset or stressed out? 

A You certainly aren’t the only one struggling with this problem, but you might be the first one willing to ask the question!

The path to any behavior change consists of four steps. First, we start with an undesired, subconscious behavior. We then bring awareness to that behavior thereby making it conscious. The third step is when we actively choose a replacement behavior.  The fourth and final step is when the new behavior becomes subconscious and second nature.

Let’s apply this to the example of smoking. A person develops a habit or addiction and doesn’t think much about the behavior. Eventually, a trigger such as reading something or hearing repeated warnings from a spouse, causes the person to become aware of the behavior. He then makes a conscious effort to replace the behavior or stop it. After some time, the new behavior becomes second nature and no longer requires active thought to maintain.  

If we apply this series of steps to your question about turning to food as a source of comfort, the first step would be to become more aware of when and where this behavior takes place. This is a very significant step that most people tend to neglect, as once they decide to change, they are eager to get started. The questions you need to ask are: How often do these episodes take place? What time of day do they most often occur? What kind of stressors trigger eating? Does the temptation arise from just having food around, or is it provoked from stress, sadness and anger that cause you to seek out food in an attempt to soothe your mood?

It might be worth spending a week tracking the behavior and learning about it before even trying to make any changes. I would suggest that you adopt the perspective of an observer, which will help you be less critical and more curious about the behavior.

Once you ’ve learned about the pattern of behavior and its most common triggers, you can begin working on behavioral change. I will suggest some common tools people use when implementing change in this area.

  1. It is a lot more challenging to stop a behavior without having a replacement behavior. I would suggest thinking of specific activities you can do when you are triggered. Perhaps it can be something enjoyable that you only allow yourself to do in these instances.
  1. We all know that keeping unhealthy food around is not giving yourself a fair chance. At the same time, many of us live with family members who might not share the same goals, so you may not be able to control all the food that enters your home. You can try to eliminate a specific food that is your weakness,  or if it is in the house, keep it in a specific place, out of view.

3-Another suggestion is to write what’s called a “coping script” which we write and keep with us at all times. It might sound something like this: “Right now I have a strong desire to eat ___ food. But I know that if I do eat it, I’m going to feel guilty, upset, and regretful. I want to make changes in my life that will make me feel happy with myself and that happiness outweighs the momentary pleasure of the food I’m tempted to eat. I’m committed to bringing happiness into my life.”

4-There is a concept in addiction called “Urge Surfing.” Urges are like waves. They rise in intensity, then peak, and eventually crash. Viewing an urge from this perspective and creating mindful awareness of its presence can allow it to wash over you until it passes. Perhaps make a rule for yourself that you can eat the food but will need to wait 20 minutes (the average time for an urge like this to pass) before making that decision.  

Finally, one of the most important ingredients in making a successful change is the decision to stick with change regardless of how long it might take and what bumps you might hit along the way. I think the mistake people most often make is that they believe success comes quickly and is not a process that occurs over time. Most changes do happen over time, but you must face obstacles. If  you allow yourself to stick through it, you will get there in the end.

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