Do you remember the last time you were stressed, angry, or frustrated? Did you eat just because you always do when you feel that way? What about the last time you ate five of your favorite chocolate chip cookies – even when you told yourself you would just have one? And think back to the last time you were at a movie. Did you buy popcorn just because you always eat popcorn at a movie, even if you are not really hungry?
These are all examples of triggers exerting an unconscious control over you, setting off bouts of overeating. Trigger feelings, trigger foods and trigger situations can be so powerful you can almost hear them yelling “I’ve gotcha!” before you even feel you have time to stop them. However, with the right tools and strategies, they can be stopped.
Read on and learn how to recognize and control your personal triggers.
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You and your triggers
Triggers are certain foods, situations, and feelings that prompt you to overeat; they can trip you up any time, anywhere. For example, it might have always been a habit for you to eat chips when you’re stressed. This means that no matter how much weight you lose, or how healthy your regular eating habits become, there will always be a “chip-eating trigger” for you when you become stressed, unless you learn to control it.
Places, people, situations, and even seasons can trigger an eating response. For example, at the movies, you might be “triggered” to eat popcorn. When you see your mother-in-law you might automatically lunge for the cookie jar. At Easter, it’s likely you’re “triggered” to eat chocolate.
Learning to identify and control your triggers is crucial to your weight-control success.
Everyone’s triggers are different. However, there are some fairly common ones:
||Candy – Chocolate – Ice cream – Potato Chips – Fries
||Anger – Stress – Loneliness – Guilt – Anxiety – Rejection – Boredom – Helplessness
||Watching TV – Going to the movies – Talking on the phone – Doing homework – Sitting at the computer – Reading – A relative visiting – Being home alone –
Pavlov’s dogs teach us a lesson
The Russian scientist Pavlov gave us a great example of how triggers work when he researched reflex behavior. In his research, Pavlov conducted one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology. The strategy of the experiment was simple: a tuning fork was rung every time a group of dogs was fed. After the dogs had become accustomed to this pattern, it was rung without feeding them. It soon became clear that if the tuning fork were rung the dogs would begin to drool more than normal, even when there was no food. The dogs had learned to associate the sound of the tuning fork with food, linking a trigger (the sound) with a response (drooling). In other words, they had developed a conditioned response to a trigger.
This conditioned response is what makes you eat popcorn at a movie just because you are there, or eat certain comfort foods when you are stressed, or eat chocolate chip cookies as soon as you smell them – whether you are hungry or not. For various reasons you have either learned or are conditioned to respond to trigger foods, situations, and feelings as if you are truly hungry; you are unconsciously prompted to eat. Once you begin eating in response to a trigger, your ability to stop is very limited.
Although conditioned responses can take on a life of their own and begin to operate as if they were reflex responses, they can be undone. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, you can think, reason, and unlearn conditioned responses; you can learn not to drool just because a tuning fork is ringing!
Stop your drooling! Turning “I’ve gotcha” into “No you don’t”
Like any behavioral change, learning how to control triggers is a process. Triggers say “I’ve gotcha!”. You need to learn how to say “No you don’t!” Here’s how:
First you need to identify the foods, situations, and feelings that trigger unconscious overeating for you. The best way to do this is by using a journal. You can divide it up into three sections for trigger foods, situations, and feelings, or just note everything in one place.
Write down any triggers you are already aware of and then begin to observe and record further. Notice what you eat in certain situations or places; observe the connection between specific feelings and your desire to eat certain foods; become aware of when you can’t say “no” to the second, third, or fourth helping of a food. For some people, just this awareness can be enough to control some of the weaker triggers.
Food triggers are more complex than other triggers. There are scores of associations and connections that develop from early childhood between specific foods and comfort, security, and nurturing. With trigger foods, you need to recognize and then actively break the unconscious connection between certain foods and the feeling of inner satisfaction. This often crosses over into the area of emotional triggers as well. To identify food triggers, try thinking back through your life: What have been your “comfort” foods over the years? Which foods were you taught to think of as “treats”? Which foods were “forbidden”? Which foods did you feel deprived of? Answering these questions can give you clues to what your trigger foods might be.
Once you have identified a number of trigger foods, feelings and situations, your next step is to decide that you are going to learn to control them. Believe in your ability to do this.
Having decided to learn to control your triggers your next decision will be which triggers to work on first. Only work on one or two triggers at a time – too much too soon is a recipe for failure. Once you realize you can master one trigger, you will have the confidence to tackle the others.
Choose triggers that exert the most control over you and which do the most damage. One way to determine which triggers do the most damage is to count the calories eaten while under the influence of that trigger. For example, if you always eat a huge bowl of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream whenever you watch TV, the damage could be upwards of 600 calories. Another way to determine damage is to consider frequency; does the trigger eating occur rarely, some of the time, or too much of the time?
You cannot bargain with trigger-generated eating habits. You cannot fool yourself into believing that you can respond to triggers only when you want to.
The best way to control your triggers is to consistently stop responding to them. Not just for a day, a week or a month. Not just while you are trying to lose weight, but until you can control the conditioned eating habit – and in some cases this may mean permanently. True control means that you – not the trigger – decides where, when, and what you will eat.
If you have a problem with eating popcorn at movies, not responding to the trigger doesn’t mean you can never eat popcorn again. It means that to gain control of the trigger you should stop eating popcorn at that trigger place, each and every time you are there. You can certainly eat popcorn when you are hungry, just don’t eat it simply because you are at a movie. Similarly, you may find you can also eat your favorite chocolate chip cookies – if you can stop at one or two. Awareness of the fact they are a trigger food for you may be enough to stop you there. If not, you might have to avoid them altogether.
And remember: don’t go into a trigger zone on an empty stomach! Hunger makes you weak, physically and mentally. If you can anticipate a trigger situation or feeling, eat something healthy and satisfying beforehand.
Controlling triggers takes practice. Now that you have an understanding of triggers, put into effect what you have learned. Try these helpful suggestions for practicing trigger control.
To help you gain control over situational triggers try this journaling approach:
- Write a statement describing the trigger situation. Phrase it in the past tense: “I used to eat while watching TV.”
- Then write a statement in the present tense, describing the change: “I don’t eat while watching TV because I know that eating while watching TV is a trigger for me. It makes it hard for me to lose weight, so I choose not to eat while watching TV.”
- Finally, think of alternatives and write them down: “If I am hungry I eat first, then watch TV. I don’t mix the two activities. Eating is one activity; watching TV is another.”
To help you gain control over trigger foods try this technique:
- Write down what your favorite foods were as a child, a teenager, a young adult and now. Have they changed? For most people they do, which tells us that taste buds can change over time and with choice. Think about how you learned to like the taste of alcohol for example!
- Prepare to change your food preferences. Choose one food to work on at a time; if you feel deprived of too many foods you may just decide it’s not worth the effort at all.
- Eliminate that food completely from your life for at least two months.
- After the two months, reassess. If you can walk away after eating that food without craving more or feeling deprived, then you can assume it poses no real threat and can be eaten in moderation. If you cannot eat it in moderation and feel “powerless in its presence”, then complete elimination of that food is really the only solution. You might reassess again later.
- Write your decisions down in your journal: “I do not eat caramel-covered popcorn. It does not exist for me!” or “I can now eat caramel-covered popcorn in moderation. It has no control over me anymore.”
To help you gain control over trigger feelings give this a go:
- Write down several of your trigger feelings and state why you respond to the food in that way. For example: “I eat after a stressful situation because food calms me.”
- Then describe what happens after you eat in response to that feeling. For example: “If I eat when I am stressed, I feel worse after I eat, and the stress is still there.”
- Then think of several appealing alternatives to eating when you get that feeling and put them in writing: “When I am stressed I will meditate.” “When I am stressed I will take a candle-lit bubble bath.” “When I am stressed I will go for a walk.” “When I am stressed I will garden.”
Remember when dealing with triggers to stay aware and think before you eat. Be conscious that you are making a decision to eat or not to eat. There is always a moment of decision and the decision maker is you.
Co-written by Anna Delany