Understanding Triggers and How to Overcome Them

By Genevieve Cunningham

Food Triggers

Trigger warnings. How often do we see this label in front of articles or information? “Content may be unsuitable for …

In our modern world, trigger warnings are widely and abundantly used. They warn us of topics that may touch a nerve. Information that may bring back uncomfortable or damaging memories. Images that may cause us to fall out of our chair. We use trigger warnings to help us stay mentally well. And for a large number of people, trigger warnings not only work but are essential to maintaining emotional well-being.

Considering the fact that we’ve easily adapted trigger warnings into our mental healthcare plan, it’s time to ask ourselves an important question: Why haven’t we addressed physical health triggers as well? Maybe it’s because we don’t recognize them. For all of the conscious effort that’s been put into avoiding things that harm our mental state, we’ve not really done the same for things that harm our physical state.

But physical health triggers definitely exist, and if we stop to think about it, we’re actually exposed to these triggers far more often than mental health triggers. If we don’t learn to recognize them, our health will continue to decline. So where do we begin? Like so many other areas of our physical well-being, we start with our diet. We start with eating triggers, which are much more common than most realize.

Calories to the Brain

When it comes to food, everyone is triggered by something different. Something that makes food seem like the answer, even when it’s not. Some of the most common food triggers include:

  • Emotional distress - When we’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, we need comfort. We just want to feel better. By consuming food, we’re tricking ourselves into thinking that we feel emotionally healed. But in reality, the food has created a temporary reprieve. If you’re going through an emotionally hard time, seek comfort in relationships, counseling, or in a positive habit such as hobbies or exercise.
  • Boredom - Boredom eating is incredibly common. When we’re bored, we turn to food for something to do. Something to keep our hands busy. This can be hard to break because we often mistake the feeling of boredom for the feeling of hunger. Instead of eating, create a habit to turn to first -- a favorite activity or a learning experience. If what you’re feeling is boredom, these activities will satiate your appetite and save tons of needless calories.
  • Sugar - Sugar creates a chain reaction in our bodies and minds. When we consume sugar, we want more sugar. We crave it. If we don’t recognize the difference between true hunger and a craving, we’ll end up consuming far more food than necessary. Luckily, you don’t have to stop eating all sugar -- but it can be incredibly helpful to cut back. Eat sugar in moderation and on purpose, and leave snacking on sugar-filled items completely out of your diet.
  • Activities - Maybe you have to eat popcorn, soda, and chocolate raisins when you go to the movies. Maybe you feel the pull toward the concession stands at sporting events. Maybe you can’t leave a burger joint without also getting the large fries. Most of the time, we don’t eat these because we’re hungry. We consume them because it’s a part of the experience. This is a trigger that feels good and makes the experience feel more complete. To allow yourself the experience without the negative health effects, enjoy these items on a much smaller scale, and you can essentially have the best of both worlds in this scenario.

These certainly aren’t the only eating triggers. Every person is triggered by something different and personal -- whether it’s a feeling, an activity, a person, a location, an environment, or something else. Only drink when you’re out with Bob? Can’t watch a football game without hot wings? Never drive past midnight without stopping at the corner fast-food drive-thru on the way home? Since we can’t walk around placing trigger warnings on everything in our path, the key is to learn how to recognize them. To learn what makes us tick and then to take action.

Tackling Your Triggers

Once we understand our own triggers, we can avoid and manage them to help us maintain a well-balanced diet and better overall health in our lives moving forward. But how? According to the Functional Medicine Institute, overcoming food triggers and addictions is a process that may include the following steps:

  • Recognition - Keep a food diary. Write down what you consume, and more importantly, everything that’s happening around you when you eat. Your location, your mood, your company. You can then use this information to go back and pinpoint triggers.
  • Replacement - Once you’ve figured out what makes you reach for food, find a healthier alternative. When you’re bored, reach for a book. When you’re emotionally spent, reach for your yoga DVD. Replacing the bad habit with a good one forces you to make new connections in your brain and eventually permanently replaces the urge for food with the urge for your specified replacement.
  • Avoidance - This can’t work long-term, but in the beginning, it might be easier to simply avoid certain triggers. If you can’t resist the extra fries, don’t go out to eat. When you’re more mentally prepared, you can slowly reintroduce these triggers.
  • Get help - Whether it’s with a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or a therapist, a little bit of help can go a long way. If you have a hard time breaking triggers, the right help can help you find success.

Food is fuel. Food is life. Food is necessary. But food is not a coping mechanism. Find your triggers, deal with your triggers, and leave the trigger warnings for those who need them. Understanding why you eat and learning what to do about it can save your diet and health -- and even your life!

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