Do you eat to try to heal your emotions?
We are all emotional eaters to a certain degree. But I often hear from people who feel that their emotions push them to eat in a way they end up regretting. The guilt, the eventual weight gain and/or negative consequences and the need to keep taming that stress with more food is a common concern among my clients. They feel trapped in a spiral, enslaved by their own “weakness” with food. It happens to both, men and women (I often see what I call the “mom binging syndrome” with mothers who feel they need to open the pantry and eat everything they find once the kids are in bed, but I’ll write more on that on another time), and teens. Fighting it doesn’t work, we need to get into the eye of the storm instead.
Food is greatly comforting. It is actually the first comfort we experience once we are pushed out into the world from the warmth of our mother’s womb. Our first taste of milk (or formula) usually comes accompanied with cuddling and hugging and someone infusing us with love, care and calm. Who wouldn’t want to feel the same way every time we experience distress throughout our lives?
Many foods, especially the ones that contain plenty of sugar, simple carbs, dairy and gluten, can help us produce or transform in our bodies into different happy chemicals of immediate, but short term effect in our brains. By eating them, we experience a bit of that comfort we had when we were young. They give us a “hit.” But the experience of love and calm is not truly completed and our stresses are not hugged away by our mother. Without realizing, we keep trying to find more of the loving calm through our food, which gives us a momentary taste of happiness and then dissipates. We need more, so we keep trying. We don’t realize that what truly used to calm us down wasn’t only the actual food, but the love it came accompanied with. That is genuinely relaxing and comforting. It brings us back to ourselves. We are putting the wrong fuel into the tank.
When we eat trying to tame anxiety, worry or sadness, it makes sense to resort to food, but it won’t heal us all the way through. I’m not saying that cookies or chips are bad (food is amoral), but the urge to eat them might be the wrong one. You are expecting from them an outcome they are incapable of providing.
If this is your experience and you wished you could handle stress-eating better, I’d like to share a tool to help you become aware of the situation and make healthier choices when the “hunger,” which is actually an emotional and not a physical one, arises.
Going back to the car tank. You can fill it all the way through with oil, but it doesn’t matter how much of the liquid you put into it, the car won’t go. In order to drive, the car needs gas (or electricity), so no matter how full it is of another substance, if it’s not the right one, it just won’t work, even if the marker says “full tank”. In the same way, if you put gas into the car engine instead of oil, not only it won’t work, it can have terrible consequences. Keep this image in mind as I explain you The Two Doors exercise.
You (and all of us) are composed by two separate compartments: one is your BODY and the other one is your SOUL/MIND. Each one has its own threshold. You can enter both, but through a different door. Just as the oil and gas example in the car, the body compartment responds positively to physical things such as food, vitamins, nice flavors, attractive food, being cleaned with soap, water, toothpaste, the use of comfortable shoes, exercise, a massage…While the soul/mind compartment responds to emotions and thoughts: art, touch, words, laughter, kindness, crying, screaming, excitement, love, breathing, and yes, to exercise and a massage (but in a different way than the body).
So, go ahead and draw two doors (you can get as creative as you’d like), you can even cut out paper or cardboard to allow both doors to be open and/or place a piece of solid paper underneath to you can draw on it even if the doors are open.
On one door write “BODY” and on the other one “SOUL/MIND” (choose whichever word calls you the most). Use a magazine to cut out images (draw them if you are feeling artistic, or just write down words if you are not in the mood) of things that fit into each one of the doors and glue them on the appropriate gate, or just get them to pass through the appropriate door. After this, you will have a graphic representation of you own two doors. You can always keep adding as you discover more body and soul nourishment.
Every time before you eat anything, ask yourself what door needs nourishment?
Is my hunger in my soul or in my body: Is my hunger physical, and I need to eat food, or is my hunger actually worry, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, uncertainty?
What door does that food go into and is it going into the coherent door?
Is this food feeding any of the two doors? If the answer is no, then decide if you really want to do it. But please understand that a quick fix is not nourishment, as nourishment stays with you for the long run, it satisfies your hunger truly, not just for a little time.
Some foods do fulfill our spirit/mind requirements but they are usually linked to experiences, meaning and/or amazing quality. Think your grandmother’s cookies, pasta in a tiny restaurant in Rome at sunset, dinner at a five-star restaurant in your birthday with your foodie friends. You are completely present in them, they are not an escape. When it’s just food, know in advance that food doesn’t have the power to make your soul go, but your body needs lots of nutrients and yes, the pleasure of tasty foods. It’s like the oil into the gas tank. You just cannot expect it to work to the purpose you need in the other compartment. If you realize it’s your soul that’s hungry, feed it then, but with the right substances, as packaged cookies and ice cream won’t make the car go. Call a friend, write something in your journal, hug your dog, take a bath, get your hair done, wear a pair of shoes that makes you feel gorgeous (yes, superficial things can also feed our soul!), watch a comic in youtube, get a 10 minute massage, do a breathing exercise, lock yourself in a room and dance to your favorite music…Fill in your soul!
The point of this exercise is to make sure you find out which of the two compartments is asking to be nourished, and feed it the right “food.”
It all goes back to awareness and the courage to feel your feelings, as opposed to trying to cover them up, by filling them with food. Once you do, life becomes much more peaceful.
This is not a one-time-only-and-I’m-fixed solution, but a practice. Sometimes you’ll do great, sometimes you’ll choose the chips or the brownies. But the more you think about it, the better you will start walking in through the door that will take you to where you want to go.