Emotional dysregulation is one of the root causes of overeating. People commonly eat for comfort when they experience strong emotions like anxiety, anger or sadness. Cats and dogs are amazing emotional regulators who can help you practice better emotional regulation just by spending quality time with them.
Ever reach for the carbs when you’re feeling particularly sad? Or how about when you’re so stressed you could scream but you find yourself eating instead? The act of eating seems to have the power to give comfort during times of high emotion, especially during anxious, angry or lonely feelings. It does nothing to address the cause of the feelings or to alleviate them in the long term, yet we still do it. With more and more streams, feeds and inboxes to keep track of and less downtime than ever before, we’re increasingly feeling overwhelmed, unable to effectively regulate our own emotions and more likely to turn to food for comfort or distraction.
Emotional regulation, the subconscious ways we experience our feelings and process emotional reactions to events in our daily lives, has been a topic of much research over the past few decades. There’s a clear link between people with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia and problems regulating strong emotional responses, with a negative shift in mood often directly preceding an episode. But even without an eating disorder, everyone binges occasionally – and often when their emotions are high.
Learning to regulate your own emotions differently is no small feat, and teaching your subconscious new tricks can be a frustratingly non-linear process that can seem to defy logic. To create new brain pathways, you must practice the new behavior – the more you practice it, the more you reinforce it. If you fail and end up practicing the old behavior, which happens often, especially in the beginning, you’re reinforcing the exact behavior you’re trying to change. But since emotions are largely outside of your conscious control, how exactly do you get your twenty reps of improved emotional regulation in each day? One answer comes from cats and dogs.
Cats: An alternative to comfort food
Picture a warm, purring cat stretched out in your lap, happily snoozing the afternoon away while you work on your computer. This cat has her head on straight – she’s regulating her emotions very well. Here’s the magic: emotions are contagious, even between many species. Your cat’s perfectly calm and cozy state of mind can be yours, and she’ll freely share it with you. The next time you’re feeling stressed and reaching for a comfort cookie, try cuddling your cat instead. Let your emotions drop away while you absorb hers and pat yourself on the back for getting another emotional regulation workout in.
Dogs: The best trigger for taking a walk
Dogs are also good emotional regulators and they insistently remind us when it’s time to head out for a walk. A dog is perhaps the single best trigger for taking a walk there is, and also a very cute behavior trigger, making any interruption forgivable. If things start to feel overwhelming and you find yourself digging in the fridge trying to distract yourself from your emotions, grab the leash and take a quick walk with your dog. His excitement and zest for being outside is contagious and attuning yourself to him will help shift your state of mind, calming your emotions and bringing you back from the edge of overwhelm and the urge to eat. Try on his happy-go-lucky attitude and allow yourself to feel as carefree as he does. Another walk, another emotional regulation workout.
When you practice dealing with charged emotional states in new ways, you build new neural pathways in your brain that will make you more skilled at staying steady through life’s ups and downs. Deciding to practice with your cat or dog (or using other regulation techniques), can not only reinforce these new patterns but bring a new awareness to your emotional state, allowing you to be more conscious of your automatic emotional patterns in the moment and giving you time to override them. As you get better at managing your emotions, it will reduce your urges to eat during emotional times.
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