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4 Ways to Breathe Through Overeating Urges

Discover the science behind your urge to overeat and how the breath can counter it. Here’s your holiday-party, Thanksgiving-table, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.

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We hope everyone fully enjoys the holidays and treats themselves on occasion, but do you feel the urge to overindulge regularly or throughout an entire season? Discover the science behind that drive in Hunger, Hope, and Healingby Sarahjoy Marshand learn how to counter it with your breath. Here’s your holiday-party, Thanksgiving-table, home-alone-with-the-pie pranayama practice.

Each year as the holidays approach, my students—and people everywhere—find themselves facing food dilemmas. These aren’t limited to whether to serve cranberry sauce or not. No, the sorts of dilemmas my students face are the ones that can downward spiral into surges of regret and despair, spike into anxiety and panic, and may last for hours, overnight, or even careen out of control for months (Halloween candy started in September!). While the lure of the New Year taunts with its tempting resolutions, the kinds of resolutions that promise retribution, re-centering, and, yes, some weight loss, I am honored to teach my students how to better navigate the holiday season on behalf of their sanity, health, and vitality.

For any of us who’ve struggled with food or body image, the holidays become peak times for stress. Our vulnerability to our usual triggers may heighten. Our thoughts (“I’ll eat nothing all day because of that party tonight with all the appetizers and the buffet”) may be in conflict with our wisdom (“Maintaining balanced blood sugar makes my moods more stable. I’ll be more present if I’m not starving myself all day and feeling frenzied about indulgences at the party”).

The Science of Stress Eating

As we try to manage feelings, thoughts, fears, and stressors, our primitive brains are wired to come to our rescue by activating our “Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Submit” strategies in the face of threat (which very well may be tantalizing pie and eggnog, as opposed to a pacing mountain lion).

The Fight reaction is aggressive like a dog barking or attacking. Flight helps us escape, much like a cat fleeing a loud noise. Freeze immobilizes our decision-making as we stunned by a threat, like a deer in headlights. And submit mimics resignation or death, much like possums.

With food “dangers,” the brain employs these same hard-wired primitive reactions. We fight with ourselves—often experienced as the ruthless voice of the inner critic. We flee by taking leave of our body, our wisdom, or our self-care. We freeze when we brace against and clench in reaction to our inner or outer experience. And we submit when we collapse again to behaviors we later regret.

Although these reactions are biologically programmed to protect us, many of us have learned to over-rely on them even when there is no real threat to our biological survival. Feeling mentally, emotionally, or psychologically threatened (i.e., stressed) also triggers them. (The holiday season has countless triggers—small and large!) Shame and addiction set us up to feel threatened much more easily and frequently. This becomes a cycle to which we unknowingly acclimate. Our brain and body chemistry then promote anxiety, depression, and even food cravings. Getting a handle on how to shift this mind-body reaction empowers us to reduce our vulnerability and increase our resilience.

Why the Breath Is Your Best Intervention

The Fight-Flight-Freeze-Submit patterns are directly associated with particular breathing responses. The fight and flight reactions trigger the secondary respiration muscles—those meant for an actual physical emergency that would require our ability to ward off or run away from a predator. The freeze and submit reactions reduce breathing to shallow sips of air (mimicking death in life-threatening scenarios and encouraging a predator to lose interest).

The good news for yogis? Simple pranayama exercises can act as a direct antidote to these reactions. Shifting our breathing pattern back to diaphragmatic breathing—the breath of the relaxation response—reduces anxiety and calms both mind and body, shutting down the fight-flight-freeze-submit circuitry. By shifting how we breathe, we can regain leadership, confidence, and clarity.

See also The Science of Breathing

4 Breathing Practices to Outsmart the Stress-Eating Circuitry

If you practice the following pranayama exercises on a daily basis, your body-mind circuitry will be better able to rely on these antidotes. If you only practice when you get triggered, the techniques will still be potent but will require more fervency from you to remember them, do them, and stick with them until the reaction dissolves and the remedy works.

1. Make friends with yourself.

Befriending yourself is a powerful antidote to the habit of fighting with, or critically condemning, yourself. Warmly welcoming your thoughts and feelings without reactivity or harsh disapproval soothes your nervous system, quiets your critical mind, and relaxes your body. Befriending brings you back into relationship with your parts of your brain that provide perspective, context, and wisdom. To befriend yourself in a moment of anxious cookie craving doesn’t mean that you eat the cookie(s). It means you radically accept and befriend your anxiety, your craving, and even your disappointment that, for now, a compulsively eaten cookie may not be a choice you can make. In this process, you’re becoming a better friend to yourself. Sensations, thoughts, and feelings will arise and pass. To befriend what is arising is to say YES to yourself in this moment, an especially life-saving skill when it comes to the most potent of feelings.

The Befriending Breath

Try it

  1.  Lie on your back with your knees bent.
  2. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.
  3. Welcome your chest to soften and for your breathing to relax into your belly.
  4. Notice any arising sensation or thought. As you inhale, extend a warm invitation to what is arising in your body or your mind.
  5. As you exhale, further soften your chest and relax your belly, welcoming what is occurring with warm acceptance. You are courageously experiencing the human condition. (Befriending means you aren’t rejecting yourself.)
  6. Practice this for 1 to 2 minutes. Then rest and reflect for another minute.

See also 4 Reasons to Breathe Better

2. Come home to yourself.

Those of us who primarily move to the flight reaction when provoked by stress know well how to abandon ship, as it were. We have learned to flee the scene, leave behind important feelings and needs, and disengage from our body. Essentially, the flight reaction is a self-abandoning act. Homecoming is our invitation to come back home to our body, mind, feelings, needs, and desires.

The Homecoming Breath

 Try it

  1. Sit in a chair. Hook your arms over the back of the chair in a slightly slouched position, or lightly hold your hands together at the small of your back. This disarms the secondary respiratory muscles of the upper chest.
  2. Consciously invite yourself to return to your body, to drop into your breath, and to reconnect your mind to the tangible sensations in your body.
  3. Notice your body’s intelligence automatically nudging into diaphragmatic breathing, without you having to choreograph it.
  4. Mentally acknowledge your body’s intelligent way of bringing you back home to yourself.
  5. Your flight patterns have been strengthened by repetition. Homecoming is also strengthened by repetition.
  6. Practice this for 1 to 2 minutes. Then rest and reflect for another minute.

See also Watch + Learn: Relaxing Breathing Technique for Anxiety

3. Let yourself melt.

The freeze reaction is intended to help us survive a threat that we’re either unable to fight off or flee from. Freezing acts a bit like frostbite, where essential resources are redirected toward one thing: survival. In frostbite, energy is directed toward the core of the body to preserve our internal organs. In the psychological freeze response, the body experiences heightened arousal from a perceived threat, while simultaneously becoming immobilized as resources are directed toward a decision about how to respond to the threat. Unfortunately, the way our nervous system becomes aroused creates a hyper-vigilant state in our body-mind-psyche. We lose access to our fresh, intelligent response system. With freeze as a survival reaction, we live in smaller and smaller circles of our life function. We become more vulnerable. We also freeze emotions that we’re unable to experience, like when something gets frozen in winter ice. Melting is an invitation to soften how we harden, physically, mentally, even spiritually. As our tension dissolves, we’re returned to existing inner resources that we cut ourselves off from when freezing.

The Melting Breath

Try it

  1. Take a seat in a chair, one without arms, if possible.
  2. Turn to your right and sit sideways on the chair.
  3. Twist your upper body to the right. As you hold of the back of the chair with each hand, twist gently. This does not need to be vigorous for it to work.
  4. Now, bring your attention to your belly and your breath.
  5. With each exhale, allow any tension in your body or mind to melt.
  6.  Soften the skin of your body and let your shoulder blades melt down your back.
  7.  Soften between your eyebrows and relax your jaw.
  8. Most importantly, welcome this melting to start thawing any holding, tightness, or tension in your belly. When your eyes soften, soften your belly. When you relax your tongue, relax your mind.
  9. Welcome the belly to melt its holding patterns, knowing that you’re softening to yourself. For these moments, there is no predator and you’re not in danger. You do not need to freeze up or contract.
  10. Practice this for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Then rest and reflect for another minute.

Like thawing frostbite, melting takes time. Your body’s approach to melting will be incremental. Practice this breathing daily, lovingly, and you will experience the melting at a pace that your body can tolerate.

See also A Simple Guided Breathing Meditation

4. Revive yourself.

In submit, we experience resignation and a profound loss of hope. In response to perceived threat, we give up our capacity to confront (fight), our wherewithal to flee (flight), and our vigilant scanning for options (freeze). Psychologically, we may experience numbness and apathy. We may feel time dramatically slowing down, experience a dismissive response to pain or have the sense of “seeing ourselves as if from across the room.” Physiologically, our body withdraws resources away from fight, flight, or freeze. Our autonomic nervous system suppresses heart rate and blood pressure. Breathing becomes shallow to almost nonexistent. We may find ourselves numbly, robotically going through the motions of behaviors we later regret, such as thoughtlessly overeating at a holiday party. To revive ourselves from that kind of submission or collapse, we use the breath to inflate from the inside, awakening our underlying capacity and courage to move in a new direction.

The Inflating Breath

Try it

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor.
  2. Clasp your hands and rest them on top of your head. Positioning your arms in this manner prevents your body from using secondary respiration muscles and opens your thoraco-abdominal cavity for deeper breathing. Essentially, you’re bringing yourself to life by inflating the abdomen, lung, and heart regions. You’re reviving your courage and heart!
  3. Now, bring your attention down into your physical body. Inhabit your muscles and bones. Feel the evidence of your physical contact with the environment beneath you.
  4. Welcome your breath to deepen slightly, within your comfort zone.
  5. You might imagine this like inflating a balloon of courage and self-kindness inside your torso. With each inhale, slowly expand that balloon to touch your abdomen, ribs, and back waist from within.
  6. With each exhale, soften your efforts so as to rest into, rather than overwhelm, yourself.
  7. Practice this for 1 to 2 minutes. Then rest and reflect for another minute.

This can be done discreetly in public. In fact, we’ve all seen people leaning back in a chair or while sitting on a park bench with their hands resting on top of their head. We may also have seen someone deep in reflective thought sitting similarly at their desk, reclined back, legs crossed, hands on top of the head.

EXPLORE MORE Guided Meditations


This article was adapted from Hunger, Hope + Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food

Sarahjoy Marsh, MA, E-RYT-500 yoga teacher and author, is a vibrant, compassionate catalyst for transformation. Her teachings are informed by her extensive Eastern and Western studies including transpersonal counseling, art therapy, the psychology of yoga, Ayurveda, and rehabilitative yoga. Her book, Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship with Your Body and Food, outlines her unique approach to yoga for recovery; integrating powerful yoga and mindfulness tools with modern day psychological modalities for an effective and comprehensive approach to healing. Committed to supporting marginalized populations and using yoga for social justice Sarahjoy founded Living Yoga and the DAYA Foundation. A sought after teacher of teachers, she leads multiple 200-hr and 500-hr teacher trainings and yoga therapy professional trainings in the Northwest, international retreats and is a regular instructor at Kripalu and Breitenbush Hot Springs.

Learn more on:
Twitter: @sarahjoymarsh
Facebook: and @HungerHopeHealing