How you can actually “feel hungry” but be experiencing a totally different emotion instead? Read on, where we explain this phenomenon and share a dozen strategies for dealing with the mystery of “mysterious hunger.
Ever been hungry… but not really hungry?
Like you’ve just finished a big meal, but there’s something inside you yelling “Dessert!” Or you’re eating something that doesn’t taste all that good, but what the heck, you’re there…and it’s there…and as they say…if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with?
Yeah, me too. What’s up with that?
Well, there are many reasons for over-eating, which I define simply as eating more than our body needs. And one reason, which I’m sure will be familiar to many of you, is emotion.
Sure, many of us know that we eat when we’re sad or happy or have had a bad day at work. But what about the other, less obvious things?
The times when we catch ourselves over-eating and we don’t know why? The times when our usual over-eating explanations just don’t apply?
That’s when you need to dig in and find out what is up with that. Because emotions are tricky things. We feel them throughout our body, often in places we don’t expect. Like our stomachs. And, sometimes it’s easy to mistake these emotions for hunger.
My experience with mysterious hunger
Recently, I had an interesting experience. I finished my second meal of the day, a satisfying meal, yet I still wanted food. Like really wanted food.
Now, my left brain knew I’d had enough. Macronutrients were perfectly balanced, portion exactly right, nailed protein + veggies, etc.
Right brain? Nuh uh. That thing wanted MORE DAMMIT NOW.
I sat with it for a few moments. It felt like a gnawing hole in my middle. It felt like real hunger. But this couldn’t be. Logically.
I said, “OK, let’s take 5 minutes and go down this rabbit hole.” I sat down and dug in. What was I feeling? Where, in my body, was I feeling it?
I then realized that I wasn’t feeling hungry at all…I was feeling angry.
That’s right, I was ANGRY!! I kept focusing on where I felt this emotion in my body.
(Important: Do try this at home, kids. Next time you’re feeling a mixed bag of emotions, dig in and define how you’re really feeling. Then focus on where you’re feeling it in your body. Don’t rush, though. Body signals are often slow to reveal themselves. Take your time.)
My jaw was clenching. My brow was furrowing. And my stomach was growling. I was angry…IN MY BELLY.
So then I thought, “OK, what’s the deal?”
I worked backwards using a concept we teach in the PN Coaching Program called “Break the Chain.” With this exercise, you assume that eating is just the last link in a chain that stretches into your past.
It might feel like you’re hungry now, but maybe you walked past a good-smelling bakery 15 minutes ago and forgot about that. Or maybe something stressful happened this morning.
So, link by link, working backwards along my chain of events, I started asking questions. What was I doing just now? What was I thinking? Where was I?
Ah! I got it. The source of my anger.
I had just been reading about a large muscular male setting his “fat loss” intake at 2500 calories a day. His FAT LOSS intake at 2500 calories a day. For me as a 37-year old 5’0″ desk monkey female, 2500 calories/day is epic nom nom nom. Weight gain city.
And fat was just falling off him. $&%*!!
At that point I realized that I was angry for two reasons (Be sure to read this in your crankiest toddler voice):
- This is so UNFAIR! Wah! Poor little me!
- I’m stuck eating these rabbit portions! Damn it! That sucks!
And then I realized I was angry because these two things seemed to contravene two of my key values:
- freedom (and independence)
So, I wasn’t actually hungry. I was angry because I felt that my two “Fs” were being compromised. (Luckily, my other F-word — feminism — remained intact. Ha!)
What next? Well, I gave myself 5 minutes to REALLY BE MAD in my body.
(Again, don’t gloss over the importance of this. Emotions are primarily body signals. So feel them in your body, don’t over-intellectualize them in your brain. Grit teeth. Make “grrr” sounds. Squinch face. Whatever it takes.)
After my 5 minutes were up, I then released that sh*tball of anger and let it float away. Out of my throat and face. Out of my chest.
The hunger was gone, as suddenly as it arrived. And a lesson was learned.
What to do with mysterious hunger
If you ever find yourself struggling with mysterious hunger, here are a few tips to help you deal with it:
- Begin by assuming some thought, belief, and/or emotion is driving this, even if you don’t yet know what it is.
- Look for where your emotions are in your body. “Scan” your body from head to toe, observing any signals or physical feelings you notice.
- Observe only. Don’t analyze. Right now you are gathering information.
- Wait. Don’t rush to explain things with your immediate response, e.g. “Oh it must be my mother issues because blah blah blah” or “Oh, it must be because I had no protein and only 20 g of carbs.” If the answer pops up quickly, that’s your brain. Your body is slow and quiet with its signals. You must wait. At least 30 seconds, ideally 60.
- Remember that emotions can feel like hunger. Yes, it’s weird. But so is an elephant’s trunk and Nature’s made both of these things possible.
- Don’t “should” yourself or rush to judge the feelings. Let them come even though they seem stupid. Just be a little distance away from yourself and observe, like an anthropologist with a clipboard.
- If you feel a feeling, ask yourself how the situation you’re in might relate to a perceived threat to your own identity and values. Ask yourself, politely and conversationally, “Oh, OK, that seems important to you? Why?”
- When you get a response (again, wait — the body is slow), ask some more. “What’s that all about? Why is that important?” Keep asking, then wait and watch the body’s response. It’s like playing the getting warmer-getting colder game. “Is it this? Hmm, no. Is it that? Ah yes, that seems more significant.”
- Give yourself a few minutes to experience whatever emotions you’re experiencing. Check your watch if you need to, and allocate 5 minutes to this project. Unlike houseplants, ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. You might as well turn and face them. Roll around in the mud with the feelings for a few minutes. If you’re sad, cry. If you’re angry, chomp your jaw and growl like a pissed-off baboon. If you’re anxious, run around in circles like Homer Simpson.
- Work backwards along the “chain” for more clues. What were you doing just before you felt this? Who was with you? What was happening? What about an hour ago? This morning?
- Take 10 deep breaths. Exhale using a slow 5-count. Try to empty your lungs completely. If necessary, release the emotion you’ve been sitting with. Just let it float off, like a soap bubble.
- Once you’re done, notice whether your hunger has changed. If so, how? If not, how not?
- If you can’t find a private place to do this (e.g. at work, with kids running around), sneak off to the bathroom. If you keep the bathroom fan running, nobody will hear you whispering Grrrr!!!!
Eat, move, and live… better.
Yep, we know… the health and fitness world can sometimes be a confusing place. But it doesn’t have to be.
Let us help you make sense of it all with this free special report.
In it you’ll learn the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle strategies – unique and personal – for you.