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Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating

By Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW

Director: The New York Center for Eating Disorders

For the emotional eater, food is a drug that can soothe, comfort, relieve tension, numb, and even punish. Food is the safest, most legal, cheapest, most available mood altering drug on the market. Many people find that trusting food is safer than trusting people – it never leaves you, abuses you, rejects you, fights with you, or dies. No other relationship complies with one’s needs so absolutely.

Any strong emotion that gives us a problem can cause us to turn to food as a coping strategy.  Emotional eating can refer to bingeing, purging, or starving. Food is always there to help us distract, detour, or deny our inner feelings.

 Triggers for binge eating

The triggers that cause people to emotionally overeat when not physically hungry include:

  • loneliness – using food to keep yourself company. Intense emptiness and isolation from others makes loneliness one of the most painful emotions to endure. You can feel lonely even among other people.

Marjorie, a high school student, felt lonely every afternoon when she came home from school. Her parents worked late hours, and Marjorie sought “mothering” in the refrigerator.

  • boredom – filling up empty time by bingeing. Boredom is a type of tension, not an absence of tension.

Dave would compulsively arrange activities and social engagements for himself, but when he had time alone, he felt bored, tense, and uncomfortable. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with myself,” he observed and resorted to overeating to fill up the empty, boring time until his next scheduled activity.

  • depression – seeking comfort, companionship, or a heightened mood through overeating.

Following the death of her husband, Claudia turned to binge eating to quell her pain. She was depressed both at the loss of her husband and at the conviction her life was over now that her husband was dead.

  • preventive bingeing – overeating to prevent yourself from being hungry at some future time.

Brianna was a saleswoman who drove to meetings throughout the city. Unsure how long each meeting would last and whether she might get hungry and not have a chance to eat, Brianna compulsively overate in her car to prevent possible future hunger.

  • anesthesia – using food to put yourself to sleep or to numb yourself.

Ben was the victim of a violent mugging and suffered flashbacks and insomnia. Gorging on food helped make him sleepy and sedated.

  • transitions – bingeing between activities to help you switch gears.

Leah would come home from work and, shortly thereafter, her children arrived from school. Her evening involved helping the children with homework, making dinner, bathing, and putting the kids to sleep. She ate throughout the afternoon trying to fortify herself and smooth the transitions.

  • fatigue – overeating to refuel yourself rather than resting, napping, or sleeping when tired.

Scott would pump himself up between his day job and his night job through compulsive eating. Not able to respond to his body’s need for rest, he attempted to use bingeing to boost his energy.

  • lack of structure – using emotional eating to replace the missing structure of the work week, such as at night, on weekends, or on vacation.

Rita thrived on her hurried, demanding schedule as an emergency room nurse. When she had days off from the hospital, she felt at a loss without her hectic schedule and manically ate large portions of food not from hungry but to fill in the blanks of free, unstructured time.

  • separation/abandonment – using a connection with food to avoid feeling the pain of rejection or the loss of a loved one.

Ashley struggled with leaving home to an out-of-town college and deeply missed her friends and family back home. She overate nightly with the food she brought in to her dorm in an attempt to restore a comforting connection to her family.

  • procrastination – using emotional eating to avoid or postpone the anxiety of some dreaded task.

Samantha was a freshman in college, but felt quite inadequate to the task at hand. Her evenings were spent bingeing and purging over the sink in order to avoid the anxiety of getting down to her homework and confronting her uncertainty over whether she was “college material.”

  • fear of crying – overeating to avoid crying because it feels too painful or too indulgent or because you fear that once you start, you’ll never stop.

Jane had been blindsided by her husband’s request for a divorce at the time her mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Needing to “stay strong,” Jane buried her sorrow and tears through her eating binges.

  • avoidance of sexual intimacy – overeating as a substitute or avoidance of sex.

Donna was uncomfortable with sex because of early sexual abuse. She avoided her husband by stalling her bedtime and would stuff herself in the kitchen pantry.

  • anger – biting or stuffing food to discharge angry feelings.

Craig was passed over for a promotion at his office. He discharged his anger at his boss with nighttime overeating with much hostile biting and chewing in an attempt to discharge his feelings.

  • resentment – “swallowing” resentments and detouring them through emotional eating rather than confronting them directly.

Tanya felt strong resentment that her boyfriend of three years was not broaching the subject of marriage. Wanting to avoid conflict and afraid to alienate him, she buried her resentment in binge eating.

  • guilt/shame – attempting to alleviate and punish oneself for guilty feelings through overeating.

After his father died, Dennis grew remorseful and guilty for not having visited him more frequently in the nursing home. He turned to food, his “substance of choice,” to distract himself from this gnawing guilt.

  • disappointment/rejection – using food to “make it up to yourself” for feeling deprived.

Faith was rejected from the college program she hoped for and tried to lessen the pain of disappointment with the temporary solace of food.

  • chronic physical pain – overeating as an attempt to soothe yourself to feel better.

Nelly suffered from arthritis of her back, and when the pain flared up, her eating disorder also flared up as she attempted to “medicate” the pain with food.

  • overwhelmed – having too much responsibility on your “plate” and seeking an oasis in food.

Kimberly worked full time, had two children at home, was caring for an aging father, and also involved in a master’s program. Food became her oasis in the midst of overwhelm.

  • envy – feelings of greed, jealousy, and envy can be so painful that people turn to food to camouflage their feelings of deprivation.

When Brooke discovered her best friend was pregnant, she was filled with envy and shame. She had been struggling with infertility and could not bare to face her friend’s pregnancy. A steady regime of bingeing “helped” her swallow these unacceptable feelings as well as making her belly feel big and full.

  • anticipatory grief – preparing for the death of a loved one, or a dreaded move, or a medical procedure by padding yourself with excess food to “dial down” the fear.

Carmen’s sister was declining from Alzheimer’s disease and. to cushion herself against her sister’s loss, Carmen found herself bingeing incessantly.

  • “hangry” – a double whammy trigger combining hunger and anger.

Irene coined this term to describe the two ingredients that led her to consistently overeat.

  • dieting is the most common trigger for binge eating or bulimia when the deprivation of the diet invariably becomes unmanageable.

Olivia found herself on an ongoing diet and binge cycle every time she tried to follow a rigid, diet plan. Break-through bingeing would assert itself as her hungry body rebelled.

A Tour Guide to Feelings

When we automatically translate all our emotions, needs, and hungers as cravings for food, we never devote our attention to what is really bothering us. We deprive ourselves of knowledge of our true feelings and thus true nourishment.

  • Be curious about what you are feeling rather than judgmental.
  • Feelings are not facts. We don’t have to hurt ourselves with food because of strong feelings.
  • All feelings have a beginning, middle and an end. You will not be stuck feeling uncomfortable forever.
  • Feelings do pass WHETHER OR NOT YOU EAT OVER THEM!
  • All human beings have a variety of emotions from generous to unkind and selfish. That’s human beings for you!
  • To cope with difficult emotions, we need to (1) name them, (2) claim them, (3) aim them. Aiming them inwardly means cultivating an inner self acceptance of all we feel, while aiming them outwardly involves communicating and expressing ourself directly to others. Or, said another way about feelings: we need to face them, trace them, embrace them!
  •  No one is so unique that their feelings are worthy of shame and self hatred. As the Roman philosopher Terence declared on the universality of feelings, “I am human. Let nothing human be alien to me.” And Bette Midler’s version of accepting emotions: “I always try to balance the light with the heavy – a few tears of human spirit in with the sequins and the fringes!”

A Tour Guide to Conscious Eating

The tour guide to “declaring peace with emotional eating” involves increasing our awareness and consciousness of the foods we eat.

The concept of conscious eating can be a form of meditation. Just as meditations can involve sitting, breathing, standing, praying, chanting, or walking, eating can also be a way of meditating.

Nibble slowly. Savor the flavor, texture, temperature, colors, fragrance, spices. You will experience your food more intensely and with more pleasure. Pleasure, not restriction or deprivation, is the ultimate antidote to emotional eating!

Sink your teeth into life, not into excess food!

Mary Anne Cohen is the Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders. She is author of French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating and her upcoming book, Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating. You can visit Mary Anne or purchase her books and tapes at www.EmotionalEating.Org.

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