The Psychology of Eating, part 2

    Part 2. Long-term “fight or flight” stress management strategies.


    In the first part of the this series, we saw how the the psychological/mental state of the eater can affect his/her metabolic capacity and moreover we explained how eating in the natural and necessary state of parasympathetic dominance can yield breakthroughs with food and metabolism. In this second part we will examine the most effective long-term “fight or flight” stress management strategies.


    1) Deep breathing from your diaphragm.

    This technique stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System because it slows down your breathing. If you put your hand on your stomach and it rises up and down slightly as you breathe, you know you're diaphragm breathing. (This is why it's sometimes called abdominal breathing.) With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. While apps and audio downloads can guide you through the process, all you really need is a few minutes and a place to sit quietly or stretch out.

    How to practice deep breathing:

    • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
    • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
    • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
    • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.


    If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying down. Put a small book on your stomach, and breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.


     2) Mindful Eating/Mindfulness

    For many of us, our busy daily lives often make mealtimes rushed affairs. We find ourselves eating in the car commuting to work, at the desk in front of a computer screen, or parked on the couch watching TV. We eat mindlessly, shovelling food down regardless of whether we’re still hungry or not. In fact, we often eat for reasons other than hunger—to satisfy emotional needs, to relieve stress, or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or boredom. Mindful eating is the opposite of this kind of unhealthy “mindless” eating.   Mindful eating is based on mindfulness, a Buddhist concept that has become popular as a self-calming method and in our case as a method of changing eating behaviours. Mindfulness is the practice of living each moment as it comes and focusing on the present moment by staying constantly aware of the feelings, thoughts, emotions, environmental stimuli, and bodily sensations that come and go over time.

    To do something mindfully means to pay full attention to it and to embrace everything about it. You can do anything more mindfully — from washing dishes or sweeping the floor, to driving to work or playing with your children. By paying close attention to how you feel as you eat—the texture and tastes of each mouthful, your body’s hunger and fullness signals, how different foods affect your energy and mood—you can learn to savour both your food and the experience of eating. Being mindful of the food you eat can promote better digestion, keep you full with less food, and influence wiser choices about what you eat in the future. It can also help you free yourself from unhealthy habits around food and eating.

    Additionally , eating mindfully can help you to:

    • Examine and change your relationship with food—helping you to notice when you turn to food for reasons other than hunger (emotional eating , eating out of boredom etc).
    • Attain greater pleasure from the food you eat, as you learn to slow down and appreciate more fully your meals and snacks.
    • Make healthier choices about what you eat by focusing on how each type of food makes you feel after eating it.
    • Make a greater connection to where your food comes from, how it’s produced, and the journey it’s taken to your plate.

    3)    Meditation practice

    Meditation is one of the best ways to improve your stress response, reduce overall anxiety in your life, and live more peacefully. It is definitely a way to help yourself reduce the occurrences of “fight or flight” in your life and to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

    Many people are intimidated by meditation; however, meditation should not be something you fear or worry about “accomplishing” or doing absolutely correctly. Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – in order to bring attention and awareness on the present moment and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state. It is a practice that goes on and on and one that you can cultivate as a lifelong activity, which will provide endless benefits and help reduce physiological stress.

    While there are certainly protocols for different types of meditation and guidelines that you can use as you're just starting out, anyone can decide to become a meditator at any time. You can meditate for hours at a time, but you can also meditate for two minutes or ten minutes. Sitting meditation is generally where people start. You can meditate alone, with a partner, or in a group. You can meditate by using your own knowledge about meditation, or you can have a guide or teacher help you along. Meditation can be silent, or it may be accompanied by audible guidance from a teacher or listening to binaural sounds. You may decide to use a meditation cushion or chair or to sit on the floor or even at the edge of your bed.


     4)  Yoga/Tai Chi (Qi Gong)

    Many people find that movement helps them concentrate better when it comes to meditation. If sitting meditation tends to be a challenge because of its motionlessness and stillness, you might try yoga , tai chi or any other mindful exercise.

    Yoga is another great way to find peace and calm when you feel your mind is racing. The mind-body connection with yoga is an amazing and well-documented phenomenon. Essentially, the theory behind the mind-body connection is that what goes on in the mind — thoughts, emotions, and feelings — affects what goes on in your body, which in turn affects how you feel physically. At the same time, how you feel physically and how healthy and fit your body is will affect your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

    Yoga is a practice that takes into consideration the mind-body connection and aims to benefit both aspects of your being. While it may appear that yoga poses only deal with the physical body, by engaging in a mindful movement while focusing on breathing, your mental state is actually heavily influenced by the same poses. Each pose is able to strengthen and/or improve flexibility in your body while also stimulating the organs and improving circulation. At the same time, every pose is also meant to stimulate the brain, inducing calm and focus.

    Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice and was originally a form of self-defense. However, today it is used to reduce stress and promote physical fitness. The practice is often done in a group with a leader. It is described frequently as "meditation in motion." By using slow, gentle movements that flow from one to the next, tai chi helps your body stretch and exercise itself while your brain aims to focus on the breath and stay in the moment, watching each flowing movement as you perform them. Tai chi is also especially good for those who suffer with chronic pain or illnesses and for the elderly, as a way of getting exercise for both the mind and body.
    4.    Visualisation

    Visualisation, or guided imagery, is a variation on traditional meditation that involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging studies (fMRI), researchers have found that whether we are imagining something or we live it in reality , the same areas of the brain get activated. This means that you can trick your brain "thinking" that you are indeed living the visualised experience, getting all the same "hormonal" benefits . This suggests also, that since there is little difference between the memory we develop from our imagination and perception of actual experience, we have higher power to influence the lens through which we perceive and experience future events. With other words,  when you start using visualisation , you have a more exceptional ability to shape your future and change your life.

    Choose whatever setting is most calming to you, whether it’s a tropical beach, a favourite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen. You can practice visualisation on your own or with an app or audio download to guide you through the imagery. You can also choose to do your visualisation in silence or use listening aids, such as soothing music or a sound machine or a recording that matches your chosen setting: the sound of ocean waves if you’ve chosen a beach, for example.

    Visualisation works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible. For example, if you are thinking about a dock on a quiet lake:
    See the sun setting over the water
    Hear the birds singing
    Smell the pine trees
    Feel the cool water on your bare feet
    Taste the fresh, clean air


    It’s important to remember, however, that there is no single relaxation technique that works for everyone. We’re all different. The right technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind to elicit the relaxation response. That means it may require some trial and error to find the technique (or techniques) that work best for you. Once you do, regular practice can help reduce everyday stress and anxiety, improve your sleep, boost your energy and mood, and improve your overall health and wellbeing. Bear in mind though, that relaxation does NOT mean flopping on the couch and zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day. This does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. The point is to activate your body’s natural relaxation response, a state of deep rest that puts the brakes on stress, slows your breathing and heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and brings your body and mind back into balance. So, apart from the techniques mentioned above , the following activities can help us stay more in Parasympathetic mode :

    • Spend time in nature

    • Play with your pet

    • Engage in positive social relationships.

    • Engage in prayer/ Practice gratitude.

    • Massages. Even gently massaging around the carotid sinus located on the sides of your neck can stimulate the vagus nerve and subsequently help you relax and unwind.


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