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  • Clare Backhouse

triggers and emotional eating

Hello, and welcome to the second in my series of posts written especially for this strange season of lockdown.

Today I want to mention something that sounds totally unrelated to nutrition, and yet it absolutely affects it, and can cause emotional eating.

This is the concept of ‘triggers’. Triggers are events, whether real or perceived, that provoke an emotional flashback to a previous experience.

For example, if I hear someone use a turn of phrase which (unintentionally) echoes a phrase that was used negatively in my past, that might ‘trigger’ all my original feelings from that past situation, and I might overreact in the present.

It’s not hard to see how this experience of virus-life presents myriad ways for us to have past traumas triggered.

Past into present

Whether it’s separation from people, anxiety for health, safety, money, future - whatever it is - these are genuine present-day challenges that most of us are facing in one way or another.

But today’s issues may feel even more challenging, if they also cause emotions to resurface from the past.

This is all discussed in fascinating detail by Pete Walker in his book Chronic PTSD. Walker’s argument is that PTSD can be experienced even by those who don’t have one major or obvious trauma in their past. Chronic neglect, for example, or isolation, or lack of attunement with parental figures, can create a traumatised emotional state which can be re-experienced at unexpected moments long afterwards.

But the emotion to which you’re flashing back may or may not be triggered by something obvious. You might not notice an obvious ‘trigger’ at all.

According to Walker, an emotional ‘flashback’ can happen without actually recalling the original memory which caused pain. Thus, if you have an emotional flashback just before waking, you might wake up anxious but without knowing why.

On the other hand, a trigger may be all too evident – a look, a word, a sound, a thought, which recall the old, previous emotion to appear again, fresh as day.

emotional eating: a sign-post for pain

This flashback mechanism may seem like a cruel joke: who, after all, wants to re-experience emotional pain from their past? And especially if it is hard to correlate to any one past experience, or to any one present-day trigger.

However, I have begun to see this trigger / flashback process as something of a gift. I appreciate that our physical and emotional makeup is stacked in favour of not brushing pain under the carpet.

I value that this uncomfortable alarm-system of the soul will prod me to resolve what needs resolving from the past – whether that’s through intentional forgiveness, talking to friends or therapists, prayer, or writing.

If nothing else, it’s a great explanation for why we tend to have old coping-mechanisms pop up with present-day virus-life difficulties, even without CPTSD. When old memories of difficulty are triggered, we can easily (unconsciously even) just dig up the old coping-mechanisms we used back then too.

For example, after my father died in November, and the funeral and the New Year were over, I found myself sorely tempted to go back to over-eating chocolate (I wrote about my erstwhile decadence here if you want the shocking admission!). Although I had put sugary milk chocolate behind me, I now wanted to start overeating the 85% cocoa stuff.

I knew I was being triggered. I was reverting to old coping mechanisms that weren’t any good for me, but seemed to relieve the immediate pain. In the end I decided to ditch everything made of cocoa altogether. This certainly felt a bit miserable (as any cocoa enthusiast will tell you). But I think it helped with the grieving process, because it made me face and feel my emotions properly, rather than coping just enough to ignore them.

Stress reactions and food

It’s no surprise if, in these strange virus-days, with so much that’s uncertain and concerning, we find ourselves experiencing higher levels of stress, more or less compounded by prior stressful experiences.

And it’s no surprise if we need extra grace for ourselves and others, since high levels of the stress hormone cortisol do not make for well-rounded, balanced thinking (it is phenomenal to me, how hormones generally shape our perception – but more on this another time).

Now some of my readers may be thinking, “well, in fact I am pretty happy in my current situation – I’m healthy, I’m enjoying family time at home, and feel fairly unstressed despite world events – what’s this got to do with me?”. Interestingly, though, cortisol doesn’t rise only with negative stress. High cortisol can also accompany the novel challenges, tensions, and heightened attentiveness we have in any unchartered territory.

Regardless whether our stress feels positive or negative, cortisol-dominated choices tend to be impulsive and driven by self-preservation, seeking quick-fixes instead of long-term gains.

Hence the tendency to drift towards quick-fix experiences like sugar, too much alcohol, or caffeine, which are all inflammatory, hard on the emotions, hard on the liver, and detrimental to healthy digestion.

pausing the trigger reaction

So if we are stressed, positively or negatively, and trying to avoid the quick-fixes, it can be useful just to pause and recognise what is going on. Feelings can sometimes masquerade as part of our core identity, causing us to feel obliged to act on them.

But we can press ‘pause’. We can even just say aloud, ‘I am being triggered by something’, reminding ourselves that stress is an experience that passes, not part of our permanent essence.

As soon as we press pause for a second, and verbalise the feelings, it may become that much easier to take an alternative route to deal with them.

It might sound trite, but it's often the simplest things which can help to bring calm and divert from unhelpful coping mechanisms, whether that’s going straight out for a walk, or merely putting oneself outside for a few minutes, or writing down feelings, or calling a friend, or singing, or praying.

Once we consider our reaction to triggers, we automatically have greater power to move gently away from, say, the sugar bowl, and towards, say, belting out our favourite songs. And this simple kind of substitution exerts a genuine impact on numerous systems of the body: it can reduce our levels of inflammation, reduce our risk of blood sugar imbalances, support hormone balance and liver function, and support our gut microbiome.

Thus, everyday habits, even if they have apparently nothing to do with food and exercise, can still have a profound impact on the way the body processes food and feels overall. This is why my professional organisation calls itself the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine.

And of course, it’s why a Nutritional Therapist would care about your emotional triggers.

Next time, we’ll have a brief look at how we can support our nervous systems and immunity during times of extra stress.

Meanwhile, feel free to email me with any questions, or set up a free 15-minute call any time.

To your very best of health,


Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT,

Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC

Consultations online


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