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Pop the Hood: Naming and Tracking Bodily Sensations  

By Julie M. Simon



Current brain science shows that a lack of consistent emotional nurturance in infancy and childhood, when the brain is being formed, can result in difficulties with self-regulation, causing us to seek comfort and nurturance outside ourselves, often in substances, like food, and behaviors such as overeating. The good news is that our history is not our destiny and the brain can be rewired.



In When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, author Julie M. Simon, explains that emotional overeaters can learn to self-nurture instead of turning to food for comfort, through the simple, easily masterable skills she offers. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book. 



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The primary cause of your emotional eating is disconnection from yourself. You’re cut off from the most basic signals from your brain and body: your emotions and the way they present in your body as sensations. Of course, you still experience unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, frustration, anger, and sadness, as well as uncomfortable sensations like physical agitation, nervousness, tightness in your neck, and headache. But I’m guessing that when you experience these feeling states, you allow yourself to register them only briefly, and then you get on with whatever you’re doing. Maybe you even deny having any feelings: some of us are quite skilled at cutting off from emotions we don’t want to feel. Staying with intense emotions and uncomfortable bodily sensations is not easy.



You may find that sometimes, when you distract yourself, your feelings seem to disappear. At other times, you get stuck in them for hours or days on end, recycling the issues that cause the feelings and the pain. You get trapped in emotional reactivity and risk acting out your pain on yourself or others. You’re more likely to experience physical ailments at these times, as your body contracts and braces in an effort to manage emotional pain.



The problem is that you don’t know how to deal with these unpleasant states, either when you’re experiencing them or after the fact. This lack of skill is keeping you stuck and turning to food. Your overeating or imbalanced eating is an attempt to comfort and soothe yourself and distract yourself from these feeling states. It’s also an attempt to give yourself pleasure and fill up on something outside yourself.



Our inner world of emotions, bodily sensations, needs, and thoughts drives our behavior, yet most of us have never had any instruction or education in exploring this inner world. Many of us have been raised in a culture that prizes rationality and stoicism. We’ve come to believe that emotional expression is a sign of weakness and that emotions are best kept under wraps. We’re encouraged to get over our problems, disappointments, and losses as quickly as possible.



Navigating our often-turbulent inner landscape doesn’t come naturally to us. Just as we need music lessons to hone our musical talents and coaching to improve our athletic abilities, we actually need to have certain experiences in childhood or later that help us develop this important skill.



In childhood, we learn about experiencing and expressing our emotions by observing the behavior of our caregivers and significant others. Through trial and error, we discover whether it’s safe to express emotion or whether we need to suppress it (for instance, when a caregiver says, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll really give you something to cry about!”). We also register whether anyone pays attention to our physical sensations (“You’re pressing on your head — is it hurting, honey?”) and body movements (“You’re curling up in a ball — are you cold?”) or whether it’s best for us to disconnect from these as well.



If you lack the capacity to name and track your emotions and the way they present in your body as sensations, you will be unable to learn from them or manage them in the future. Emotions and bodily sensations, as well as body movements (like a furrowed brow) convey important information about your internal and external environment. In order to understand the behavior of emotional eating, you have to tune in to and explore your inner world. Getting clear on what you feel is the first step in determining what you truly need and resolving your emotional eating.

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Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT, is the author of When Food Is Comfort and The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual. She founded the popular Los Angeles–based and online Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and offers workshops at venues like Whole Foods and UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles and you can visit her online at  


Excerpted from the book When Food is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating. Copyright © 2018 by Julie M. Simon. Printed with permission from New World Library.

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