Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Night after night, for more than 30 years, I practiced a habit that was making me miserable. I was a night-snacker. I’d find myself in the kitchen rummaging for a snack, even though I wasn’t actually hungry. The snacky urges usually started around 8PM, but since I was nocturnal for 24 years it didn’t really matter how late it was. If it was dark and I was awake, I’d be looking for something to eat.
This habit became my way of dealing with life. It was there for me when my boyfriend wasn’t. It was my way of telling myself “good job today” when my boss didn’t. It was the way I dealt with stress and decompressed at the end of a 20-hour shift. Sometimes it was the only bit of peace and quiet that I got all day. It was the one reliable thing that I could depend on to make myself feel better. Nevermind that it was also the reason why my weight was creeping further and further out of control.
I saw what I was doing to myself, but I felt powerless to stop. The few times that I did try to willpower my way through a night without snacking, I felt restless and anxious. Eating had become the way I’d trained myself to numb my emotions. It was my best and only coping skill.
It didn’t make any logical sense to my overly-logical brain. I KNEW that night-snacking was driving my weight gain. I knew it was the source of my frustration. I was causing my own misery. I hated what I saw in the mirror, and I hated myself for not being strong enough to do anything about it. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to do the one obvious thing that would change everything. Every day I promised myself that I’d do better tomorrow, even though I knew it was a lie.
That all changed when I started learning about the way human brains actually work. I learned that it’s not the food we really want, it’s the psychological reward. The reason I was looking for food even though I’d just eaten dinner was because I wanted to change the state of my emotions. This is such a powerful driver of human behavior that the consequences don’t even matter in the moment. I knew I was killing myself, but I wanted to feel better and I didn’t care about the price tag.
So, if food wasn’t really what I was looking for… what did I actually want? Thanks to the tools I learned from my first coach, I finally figured it out: when I was ransacking my kitchen at midnight, I was really looking for stress relief, a reward for surviving another punishing day at work, and some kind of companionship or entertainment. Now I know perfectly well that food doesn’t fix those problems, which is why my emotional needs were never satisfied. Since I didn’t really have any better tools in my toolbelt, I had to keep repeating the same ineffective behavior again and again just to get the brief illusion of relief that it provided.
Knowing what I was really looking for at night empowered me to come up with a better solution. For me, it was virtual reality games. Being immersed in an entertaining experience that required the use of both hands and all my concentration was the perfect antidote to snacking, and it met my need for stress relief and entertainment better than food ever could. My brain found the games rewarding and fun, so in a very short time that’s what I started to look forward to at the end of the day instead of what I was planning to eat. As a result, I broke a 30+ year habit of night-snacking in about 3 days. And I had a great time doing it! This was an easy shift for me to make, because I found a new solution that worked better than the old one, and didn’t sabotage my weight-loss goals.
So here’s the key: If you find yourself looking for food when you’re not physically hungry, that means you’re emotionally hungry. And food won’t give you what you’re looking for. Food is a distraction from the real problem. Finding a better solution lies in having a better definition of the problem. What need are you seeking to fill with that snack? If you’re not sure, spend some quiet-time with pen & paper, and just write down all the tantrum-thoughts that pop into your head when you’re purposely not engaging in the self-comforting behavior that sabotages you. You might hear things like “I earned it”, “I deserve it”, or “this isn’t fair”. Go deeper. WHAT did you do to earn it? WHY do you deserve it? Exactly WHAT isn’t fair? Keep digging deeper until the answer becomes clear. Then, ask yourself what else you deserve. Don’t you deserve to stop struggling and frustrating yourself? Don’t you deserve to see real results from all your hard work? Don’t you deserve to feel proud of yourself when you fall into bed tonight?
Once you know what need you’re trying to fill, you can figure out a better solution that will help you reach your goals, or at least won’t prevent you from getting there. Our subconscious brains operate on a very simple premise. We want a reward, and we will repeat behaviors that get rewarded. You were rewarding yourself with food, but that wasn’t actually getting you what you wanted. If you can identify a new reward that DOES get you what you want, you’ll be able to drop the old habit without having to struggle or feel deprived. When your subconscious brain realizes “Ooh, this is better!” the change will happen all by itself.
Written by Natalie Fayman, CPC, ACC, ELI-MP, COR.E Dynamics Wellbeing Specialist
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