You had a hard day at work and feel like you need a reward. As soon as you get home, you reach for the cookies on your kitchen counter. You don’t even think about it and just react. In the span of one minute, you inhale three cookies. You had an unpleasant experience and try to cope by reaching for a more pleasant experience.
In the past several years, I have consulted on research looking at the long-term benefits of mindfulness as it relates to weight loss, healthy nutrition, stress resiliency and greater well-being. One of the studies I consulted on observed the relationship between stress and eating. When we feel stressed, we often crave foods that are higher in fat and sugar because these foods reward us quickly with a release of dopamine or serotonin. These neurotransmitters promote relaxation to our stressed nervous systems. This is why we call them comfort foods.
Chronic stress—the kind that can come from a difficult interaction in a relationship or challenges on the job—can turn a switch that elevates cortisol secretion. This, unfortunately, promotes abdominal fat storage.
Want to learn how to be mindful of your stressors and cravings while losing belly fat? Of course you do! Mindfulness is simply paying attention in the present moment. When we slow down and pay attention to what is happening now, we cultivate greater awareness of our thoughts, feelings, body and needs. When we practice slowing down, our nervous system relaxes. We can more easily deal with all the ups and downs of life from a place of calm. This, in turn, diminishes cortisol secretion, leading to less abdominal fat. When we are mindful, we can tune into what we are craving and what is actually wise to feed in that moment. Here’s how:
1. Learn to pause. By learning how to be mindful of what we are hungry for, we can train the mind to notice but not automatically react, based on habitual patterns. In other words, we can notice we want the cookie but not eat it without thinking first.
2. Get enough sleep. Research reveals that we aren’t able to make the best choices about food when we are sleep deprived. I would also include that we are more irritable and have less ability to concentrate and focus, and our overall capacity to deal with life is diminished, when we have less sleep.
3. Learn to label your feelings. Research has shown that labeling what we experience in the moment lessens our emotional reactivity to the stressor. All of our feelings have needs, so by tuning into your feeling, you can tune into what you need.
4. Surf the urge. We have many different desires all day long, but if we acted on each one, we would be 2 year olds, not well-meaning, mature adults. If you really want something (sex, those new shoes, food, etc.), notice the desire and then ask, “Can I be with this desire for 20 minutes?” Yes, of course you can. Practice waiting, and if you still want it 20 minutes later, then go for it. What normally happens is the original desire isn’t so captivating anymore, and it passes (then we want something else).
I teach about the relationship of mindfulness and cravings in the Blooming Lotus course; our August focus is mind/body health.
5. Practice patience. Much of our reaching for the pleasant is due to our impatience with the unpleasant. We can learn to build our patience muscle by slowing down and accepting what is. I personally find impatience with traffic, so I have a little Post-it in my car that says, “Practice patience.” This gentle reminder helps a lot when I do encounter traffic. We all know the saying, “Good things come to those who wait.”
Listen to your desires, and see if you can practice surfing the urge. Let me know how it goes!
Want to learn more mindful practices? Sign up for Carley’s free “Mindful Training Workbook.”