Emotional vs Physical Hunger

October 3rd, 2011 Comments Off on Emotional vs Physical Hunger

With the holidays and the New Year drawing near, I want to spend some time talking about weight loss. It is one of the most common reasons people seek help from a hypnotherapist, and one of the many behavior changes possible with the use of hypnosis.

The majority of my weight loss clients are able to achieve success after 3 to 4 sessions. On occasion, more or less sessions are required. One of the most important conversations I have with clients has to do with the exploration of why they eat. There is a big difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.

For the most part, people who only eat when they feel physical hunger do not have on-going weight problems. It can be a very eye-opening experience for clients to learn about emotional hunger and to identify their very personal connection to their eating behaviors and their emotions. Here’s the good news, it is completely understandable to see how we, as humans, make the connection between hunger and the emotional response of pleasure. Food is good, and we should enjoy it. As infants we made a quick and strong connection between eating and pleasure. The problem lies in the fact that for many people, that connection between food and pleasure became an escape from the many unpleasant, and even painful, emotions that are an inevitable part of each of our lives. Add that to the habitual nature of human beings, and you have a population of children and adults suffering not only from obesity, but from the ensuing guilt, shame, and powerlessness associated with over eating.

Shrink Yourself (Gould, 2007), by Roger Gould, MD, is an excellent resource for those wanting to learn more about the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Dr. Gould describes the differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger in the following way:

1-Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger develops slowly. Physical hunger begins with a tummy rumble, then it becomes a stronger grumble, and finally it evolves into hunger pangs, but it’s a slow process, very different from emotional hunger, which has a sudden, dramatic onset.

2-Unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger demands food immediately, and it wants immediate satisfaction. Physical hunger, on the other hand, will wait for food.

3-A difference between physical and emotional hunger involves mindfulness. To satisfy physical hunger, you normally make a deliberate choice about what you consume, and you maintain awareness of what you eat. You notice how much you put in your mouth so that you can stop when you’re full. Emotional hunger, in contrast, rarely notices what’s being eaten. If you have emotional hunger, you’ll want more food even after you’re stuffed.

4-Emotional hunger often demands particular foods in order to be fulfilled. If you’re physically hungry, even carrots will look delicious. If you’re emotionally hungry, however, only cake or ice cream or your particular preferred indulgence will seem appealing.

5-Emotional hunger often results in guilt or promises to do better next time. Physical hunger has no guilt attached to it because you know you ate in order to maintain health and energy.

6-Emotional hunger results from some emotional trigger. Physical hunger results from a physiological need.

7-When you are feeding physical hunger, you can eat your food and savor each bite, but when you eat to fulfill emotional hunger you stuff the food in. All of a sudden you look down and the whole pint of ice cream is gone.

Gould, R. (2007). Shrink yourself. (pp. 14-15). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

It is very interesting to explore eating behaviors with each client, and although everyone’s patterns of eating are unique, there are often some common patterns. My job is to develop a treatment plan for each client that evaluates their particular eating habits in a way that addresses the emotional causes of their over eating, in addition to the actual eating behavior.

Because our subconscious minds respond well to metaphor, one of the most beneficial sessions I have with each weight loss client involves re-framing the importance of food. Emotional eaters often have food on a pedestal. It permeates every aspect of their daily routine and is basically the “star” of the show they call “My Life”. It can be very liberating to take food off that pedestal and learn to view it as a simple prop in your life, no more important than the clock on the wall or the color of your front door.

In addition to de-emphasizing the role of food in one’s life, I work with clients to identify and extinguish out-dated behaviors and modes of thinking that they are ready to let go of. This can be a very powerful exercise, and one that can be applied to a variety of life situations other than weight loss.

Another powerful process that I use with clients is called ‘future pacing.’ This includes identifying and describing actual life situations (work, home, restaurants, etc) where they often find themselves unable to maintain their good intentions in regard to eating right. By visualizing specific situations where you make all the right decisions, while under hypnosis, new habits are formed and bonds are strengthened between the new behavior and your positive emotions about that behavior.

Eating behaviors are often a reflection of feeling powerless in one or more areas of our lives. With the use of a metaphor called the ‘control room’ clients learn how easy it is to regain control over their desires, their emotions, and their behaviors. Using hypnosis for weight loss can result in much more than just losing weight. Losing weight is often the first step in a gradual process of regaining one’s personal power and learning to live life intentionally.

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