After reading Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana, I wondered whether I was giving enough importance to something I learned in mBraining: the power of the pause.
In particular, I thought about the pause before and after eating. We all know the quote by Viktor Frankl:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
There are two aspects of this that I use regarding eating:
- The pause before eating is a check-in that I do regarding hunger. Am I hungry? Because, if I’m not hungry, why would I eat?
- The second pause happens after eating. I tend to run off into activity – hurriedly getting back to work. But with my gut issues, this is an ineffective practice! My body truly needs to rest and digest.
So, I want to share some of the simple life changes I have made for my personal growth and well-being.
The pause before eating:
Anything we do, especially what we repeatedly do, builds a habit. I want to develop a pattern of anchoring into a restful state of relaxation and calm before eating.
Why? Because my body doesn’t digest well when I eat “on the run”. That includes eating and going straight back to work.
From a nervous system point of view, we have a normal state of being both calm and alert, which might move into fight/flight (sympathetic) or rest/digest (parasympathetic). Suppose I eat at my desk while working. In that case, I am still in a state of response to my environment, rather than allowing myself to relax into “rest and digest”.
To anchor into resting, I have begun to practice pausing before I start to eat. This anchor is as simple as sitting and breathing for half a minute. While I focus on my breath, I settle my mind and get grounded in my body. In particular, I notice if I’m hungry and how hungry I am.
I want to achieve presence: being utterly present with eating, rather than having my mind still ruminating on my work or activities. So, I notice the aroma of the food and what response it evokes. I pay attention to my posture and body language: do I need to relax more into this moment? I might allow myself to sigh deeply, releasing tension from my shoulders.
If I notice I’m tense, I’ll give myself a little longer to relax: intentionally scanning my body, seeing where I am holding the tension.
Prayer: practising gratitude before meals.
If you think about it, we used to pray before each meal. At least, my family did. And I realise now that it was a form of a pause.
Prayer was a pretty powerful pause:
- We connected to the Divine/Universe/God
- We gave thanks for the cook or cooks that prepared the food upon the table;
- Then, we expressed gratitude for those sitting at the table with us;
- Typically, we gave thanks to the supply chain responsible for getting the food to us (grocers, truckers, and others), expressing gratitude to everyone that made it possible for you to eat the meal;
- Our family typically also gave thanks to the farmers and workers that had produced the food; and
- We gave thanks to the Earth as well.
I realise now that perhaps it’s not the importance of prayer but rather the importance of gratitude and appreciation. Prayer was simply the mechanism through which we expressed our thankfulness.
Before we ate, we relaxed into a state of appreciation, which is one of the most potent emotional states you can be in for good health and well-being. More importantly, we acknowledged how we are all one: connected on this Earth. And that gives us the safety of belonging.
Of course, it also guarantees that you’re not eating in a state of anger, frustration or stress. You’ve moved your focus to one of appreciation and gratitude. This focus has a significant impact on how you digest your food.
Perhaps I need to reconsider my definition of “prayer” before eating and take a moment to be grateful.
What if I’m not hungry?
If I’m not hungry, I seriously need to look at what I’m doing with food! Why would I eat if it’s not to satisfy the physical need of hunger?
I can tell you why I used to eat:
- pain and discomfort in my gut
- depression & sadness
- needing comfort
- lacking inspiration
- sugar craving
I’m sure there’s more.
The power of the pause, of sitting with my breath, is that I notice my inner state. If I’m not hungry, I take the time to write in my journal.
What was I hungering for?
There’s no need to eat at this moment. But there is a need that is asking for attention. What is that need or desire?
Sometimes it’s easy, at the very forefront of my emotions or thoughts. But that’s not always the case. Herein lies the power of “just breathe”. What do I need to lean into?
Rather than lifting a fork, I lift my pen.
I note down what I notice in my body: sensations, emotions and even random thoughts. It’s merely an exercise in awareness as I get more connected with my inner wisdom. Over time, I’ve noticed it’s much easier to recognise what is missing – why did I turn to food?
But the secret is: don’t eat at this time. If I eat, I block all the signals and messages. It’s like a switch that I flip and turn off. The only way to make the inner discovery is to sit with the discomfort and notice what I notice.
There are many times I would rather eat than face my feelings: but growth doesn’t happen by eating my emotions!
Eating when I’m not hungry is like “delete all”. Whatever messages or insights were sitting there got swallowed with the food.
How I eat:
I have no rules about “what I eat”, but I follow guidelines about “how I eat”. I love these personal boundaries because they honour my body and what it needs most: good digestion.
- I eat sitting down, not standing, driving or on the run;
- I eat at the table, rather than at my desk in front of the keyboard; and
- If I eat watching a program – it’s a conscious decision, and it is never the news. It also has to get turned off when I finish eating rather than staying hooked on the program.
I honour the dietary restrictions of Celiac Disease because I choose to give my body the most support that I can. In my mind, I am allowed to eat wheat and gluten – but I would never choose to because of the ravaging consequences to my gut.
I want to feel good in my body: energetic, healthy and well. So my food choices reflect what my body has let me know over the years work best to get those results. And believe me, when I can get gluten-free brownies, those make for a delicious breakfast with ice cream. There are no rules in my house!
The only question I ask is: “does this honour my body and how it feels?”.
My biggest learnings, however, have come in how I’ve changed what I do after eating. Until this year, I would finish eating and dive right back into activity. I would often be in the kitchen, putting my dish for washing before becoming aware that I had finished eating and cleaned up the table.
My mind was already in gear for “doing”, already onto the next project on my to-do list.
I started just by breathing after eating and creating a new space – another pause.
Why? Because of the digestive challenges I’ve had over the past twenty years. If I wanted to change the healing process, I needed to make a fundamental change in my lifestyle.
My body was asking for “rest and digest”.
So, I had to find a way to pause after eating, and I wanted to create more space to breathe – to be present. So, to relax more, I started to look at what I could do after eating, which allowed me to connect with my body and digest.
Two ideas surfaced:
- I could read – assimilating information and learning; and
- I could journal – digesting my thoughts and feelings. Writing in my journal continues the check-in I did before eating “how am I?”.
Both of these aligned with what I want to create in my life: easier digestion. Both of these options give my body and mind the message: I care.
If I choose to read, it will be whatever I am reading “at the moment”.
I typically read about an hour a day.
So making the change to reading after each meal was simple: I can read for twenty minutes after each meal and still not upset my schedule. Those twenty minutes give me time to sit and relax while doing something I enjoy and feel good about.
My journal is not “a food journal” per se, and I may – or may not – record what I eat. The reason to register what I eat is to notice how my body responded to the food (did I feel sluggish, bloated or another reaction?).
If I eat when I’m not hungry, I write about what’s going on: what are the circumstances of my day? The purpose of this is to notice patterns – especially triggers. What drives me to eat when I’m not hungry? What mood influences me to turn to food? In what circumstances am I more likely to lose self-control and eat without awareness?
Becoming aware of the pattern then allows me to change it! This is the power of the pause!
We all know that food is not the real problem or the issue. The problem is that I use food to avoid the issue! Food is simply a good escape. And then I can blame the food!
Having my journal on hand for moments like this is a window into my soul.
I’ve noticed a considerable difference in my health since I started these practices. They are simple, small changes that my gut thanks me for! Things that have changed for me:
- less bloating and gassiness;
- less inflammation and reactions;
- better sleep at night; and
- more energy during the day.
Without a doubt: well-being is an inside job! But our choices and lifestyle impact that in so many ways.
You might consider these small changes:
- Pause and breathe before eating, asking yourself (your body and emotions), “how am I doing right now?”. Notice what you notice;
- Sit down to eat, away from your desk and workspace;
- Focus on relaxing for those few minutes that you take to eat; and, finally,
- Give yourself a few minutes after you eat to pause and breathe again, allowing your body to stay in that state of “rest and digest” before jumping back into the activities of the day.
You might not have the flexibility that I have to add in fifteen minutes or so after eating to read or journal. Nonetheless, see what small changes you can make that allow eating to become a powerful pause.