Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Prior to learning how to manage my mind through self coaching with the CTFAR model, I had never thought of myself as an emotional eater. I had never experienced the movie image of being the heroine sitting in a bed with a pint of ice cream sobbing over some boy.
Food was my friend
But as I began to use the tools to analyze my behavior, I realized that food was actually the primary mechanism I used to cope with stress. It made sense, because like most children I had grown up associating food with comforted or reward. So if I’d had a rough day at work I’d want to come home and ‘veg out” in front of the TV with food. What better reward could there be than being entertained while enjoying my favorite foods.
There’s no inherent problem with watching TV to relax nor even eating while doing so. The issue was that I would overeat to the point of being uncomfortable, because I wouldn’t be able to tell when I was already full. My brain would just be demanding that I keep feeding it all the pleasure, which was at odds with my goal of losing weight.
So what’s the alternative?
What I’ve learned is that I can process feelings by leaning into them. This takes some practice, but it’s well worth the effort to learn how. When you can lean into your emotions, you don’t have to be scared of them any more. Even the scariest feelings are just a neurochemical cascade that your biology is programmed to dissipate, bringing your body back to neutral in time.
Let me give you an example. I was recently running late to catch a flight due to traffic and other delays. I could feel the tension building up in my body. I wanted to yell at my husband to hurry out, but I kept telling myself that he knew the time and I didn’t want to give him additional pressure to drive unsafely. I couldn’t even name the feeling so I closed my eyes and leaned in.
How does it work?
Feelings are simply a neurochemical signal in the body that are stimulated by specific thoughts. In this case my thoughts were “We’re going to miss our flight.” The feelings were frustration, urgency, impatience, fear. These were causing adrenaline, cortisol, and probably a few other chemicals to surge in my body. This was leading my heart to race and my breathing to become a bit shallower, as well as the physical sensations described above in Step 2. Emotions are generated in the amygdala or primitive part of the brain.
We can all have superpowers just by getting over the idea that feelings are hard
We can get caught in a worry loop of thinking the same thoughts over and over again, triggering the same signals and amplifying them further. My usual coping mechanism had been to push away the feelings (resisting) or to start yelling (reacting). But I’ve learned that both of these coping mechanisms actually make things worse.
Instead, I now lean in to process my feelings, thereby hacking the worry loop and activating a different part of my brain. I engage my prefrontal cortex by asking a series of questions and redirecting my attention to what I am feeling physically. By intentionally focusing on the physical experience of the emotion, I am able to get out of my primitive brain and to tap into the more creative and solutions-focused side.
Give it a try
While the term “brain hacks” is new, these concepts have been used in psychology for a long time. It has been exciting for me to see the shift from using such psychology tools for treatment towards using them for prevention instead. I love the idea that we can all have superpowers just by getting over the idea that feelings are hard and have to be avoided at all cost.
These tools are simple, but practice is required to learn to use them well. What I have found is that we can empower ourselves to manage our thoughts and feelings with a few simple tools. And with those kinds of superpowers, the sky’s the limit!