Do you consider yourself to be an emotional eater? Late nights and stressful schedules often become the norm for dance educators. Not only are you navigating a demanding teaching schedule, but you’re also often managing the behind-the-scenes work of studio performances and competitions.
There are several reasons why you might be relying on food to cope with heightened emotional triggers—stress, anxiety, nervousness, sadness and even boredom being some of the most common. Food offers a temporary distraction and, for some dance educators, a sense of comfort. Food is also a source of connection. Our experiences with food, whether positive or negative, build a framework of memories that shape our behaviors. So, using food as a tool to cope is not a behavior that’s fundamentally bad, nor one that should evoke guilt or shame. In fact, it’s human nature to seek comfort during times of emotional discomfort.
But because the relief food provides is only temporary, we must construct a more productive plan when facing these emotional experiences. Here are three steps to get there.
Formulate a Supportive Eating Routine
For many dance educators, emotional eating can turn into mindless eating or eating in a way that feels uncontrollable. If you find yourself consistently eating to a point of physical discomfort, identify whether your baseline food intake is meeting your needs.
Under-eating can happen intentionally, such as from dieting, or unintentionally. The latter is often a result of busy schedules and unreliable hunger cues. Not eating enough can exacerbate experiences of emotional eating as your body simultaneously attempts to make up for a previous energy deficit. And the same holds true for restrictive food rules. Attempting to cut back on your favorite treats can drive cravings and ultimately lead to an all-or-nothing mindset. To combat this, aim for regular meals and snacks throughout your day. Build a flexible meal plan that includes convenient options for extra-busy dance days. And honor your food preferences without attempting to abide by restrictive food rules.
Reframe Your Response
Emotions like anxiety, stress, overwhelm and worry often affect individuals differently. These emotions can show up in our thoughts, behaviors and even in physical sensations that we experience within our body. Take a scan: How might these emotions show up for you? Perhaps you experience overwhelming thoughts about upcoming events or a nervous stomach. Utilize this self-assessment to identify potential early warning signs. While an initial reaction might be to grab food, consider more productive tools to cope with these instances of discomfort. Activities like listening to music, taking a walk, reading a book or knitting are examples.
Seek the Right Support
Unraveling the experiences that drive your desires to turn to food for comfort can be a challenging task. A licensed mental health therapist can provide the support needed to do this work. In a similar way, your relationship with food might need additional support. The shame and guilt that are often associated with emotional eating is a learned reaction from diet culture. This aftermath results in a cycle of self-ridicule. Unlearning these food beliefs is an incredibly important step for dance educators wanting to feel empowered at mealtimes. Working with a registered dietitian nutritionist is encouraged to support this work.
Contrary to what diet culture says, you are not a bad person if you’re using food to cope with strong emotions. Once we strip away the stigma associated with this behavior, we can make space for these feelings of discomfort and consider what might better support us for the long-term.