Ancient China. General Yuan, a respected military leader, has taken to his bed with a mysterious illness. He is sick, unable to get out of bed, and deteriorating. Renowned Doctor Chen has been summoned to see if he can save the general. The doctor examines his patient and steps out of the room. He writes a letter and gives it to the general’s servant, telling him to give it to the general after he has left.
The servant does as instructed and gives the letter to the general. General Yuan shakily and weakly opens it, reads it and suddenly leaps out of bed in a fury. In the letter Doctor Chen cusses out the general, calls him names, questions his courage, his manhood, his basic character. He calls him a lazy malingerer.
The general is beside himself with anger. Fuming, he throws aside the blankets, puts on his clothes, and flies out the door after the doctor. His is for all intents and purposes cured from his mystery illness that has kept him bedridden.
Clever Doctor Chen was famous for a reason. He was perceptive enough to know that the general’s ailment was based in emotion, and he used another emotional state to rebalance the body.
What does this have to do with food?
Sometimes eating can be anxiety provoking. This is especially true if you have a lot of food phobias or an eating disorder. This can make sitting down to a meal a very scary, even paralyzing, experience. Unease at meal time can also happen for anyone who follows what the media and the “experts” say about food.
We live in a culture that has gone more than a little bonkers around eating. Every week there is a new food to avoid for (supposed) health purposes. Is it gluten we should avoid now? Sugar? Fats? Only certain fats? Grains? Red meat? And then “experts” change their minds, and declare another food dangerous. It’s enough to make people without issues around food a little nervous, never mind if you have an eating disorder or other food concerns.
To top it off, anxiety and tension are horrible for your digestion. They put your nervous system in the exact wrong state to efficiently process your meal. It is an invitation to develop indigestion. Greeeaaat. You were nervous about your food, and now you are nervous about your digestion.
What’s a person supposed to do then?
Is there an antidote to food anxiety?
I suggest following Doctor Chen’s wisdom. You can soften and even override your anxiety by cultivating a more harmonious and helpful emotional state, in this case gratitude.
Gratitude is a good state to develop because it calms the heart (they’ve actually measured this), which gives your nervous system the signal that everything is safe so your body can get on with digesting the meal efficiently and comfortably. (Whoever came up with saying grace was on to something.)
Are you asking, “How am I supposed to get grateful when I’m scared of the meal in front of me?” And maybe even, “How do you cultivate an emotional state anyway?”
Well, aside from someone handing you a note to help with it, there is a way to practice developing and experiencing gratitude. And it’s actually pretty simple.
An easy gratitude exercise.
Focus on the center of your chest and take several full but gentle breaths (no forcing).
Think of something that makes you grateful. If you are grateful for the meal in front of you, great. If you aren’t, though, no worries.
You do not have to be grateful for the food! You just have to be grateful for something. Anything. You can be nervous or irritated about the food and still be grateful for something else.
While keeping your attention on the area of your heart, think of something that makes you feel sincere gratitude. It does not have to be earth shattering or particularly momentous. It can just be something that makes you smile gently: a pet, your significant other, a fond memory, the place where you live, the weather, your ability to move or talk. No matter, just something that makes you a little grateful. Notice how that feels in your body.
There, you just cultivated an emotional state. Well done.
But what if you get nervous again during the meal? Get grateful again. And again. Do it as many times as you need as the anxiety comes up. You can actually get really good at being grateful in the moment.
Really? That’s it?
I know this sounds exceedingly simple, but what the gratitude is doing is changing the entire state of your body, making your digestion stronger, your nervous system more balanced, and your thinking clearer. All from practicing an emotion.
Dr. Chen would be proud of you.
And speaking of the great ancient physician, what happened to him? Did the general realize he was cured, catch up to the doctor, and thank him for healing him?
Uh, no. Unfortunately the servant was a little quick to give the general the note. The general was able catch up to the doctor and, in his anger, he lopped off the great physician’s head. Oh dear. See the power of emotional states?
By practicing, you can have some power over yours.