I have only recently received the official diagnosis from a medical professional, but I have always known that I have persisting anxiety (GAD being the proper name). A lot of this is related to the circumstances I grew up in. I had divorced parents, drug use in the family, I moved all of the time, lived under shaky financial situations, was homeless for a year, had a parent die in my formative years, had a mixed family, and so on. I learned early on, for better or for worse, truth or otherwise, that I cannot trust the people or world around me to take care of me, so I obsessively plan and blame myself when things go wrong (even when they are not my fault) because “I should have known better.”
All of this to say that when I try to pinpoint a time that “stress eating” in my life was not in effect… I can’t. A very early memory is stealing extra Flintstones gummies. Another is our constant influx of Taco Bell and Blue Bell (darn those bells). My cereal binges where I would fill a large salad bowl with cereal and milk, then taking the cereal box with me so I could refill until the box was gone. I took tens upon tens of granola bars from the pantry and hid them in my desk, or took gallon baggies of cereal to my room (Sorry, mom). The second I had autonomy I bought full jars – jars with an S! – of Nutella to eat with a spoon.
Not only that, but food was reward and love and community. I remember getting ice cream after a performance, or going out to eat with family being a huge treat. Getting to pick the place or our own pints (or half-gallons) of ice cream when we got A’s. Sneaking candy into the theater, making cookies, eating gallons of pasta, getting thirds – all of this was all mixed together with family and with love and with quality time.
On and on I could list moments where I turned to food over the last seven years being out of my parents’ house. Food does this special thing to me: it makes me stop thinking.
See, normally my mind spins and spins with all of the what-if’s. My life and I have trained my brain to feel constantly on-alert and to anticipate the worst case scenarios, which would be helpful if I was on safari or hiding from the law which my brain assumes I must be doing. I feel at least somewhat anxious or worried at all times. I wish I could say that this is an exaggeration, but truly, when my world is 95% good and 5% something going on, I will worry and worry at that 5% until it bleeds – it’s a habit that runs over into my other bad habits like nail-biting.
But, oh, when I eat…. it’s quiet. Blissfully quiet. My worries seem less important, my chores can sit on the back burner, this food is the thing captivating my attention. The world quite nearly blurs around me while the food is in sharp definition. However, the second I am out of food, or so full that I am in pain… everything returns, and with it – guilt and shame from eating in a red haze.
I know, from some of the research I’ve done preparing for this post, that stress is a huge factor. Short-term stress can shut down appetite in order to allow you to focus on the task at hand. However, long-term stress pumps in the hormone cortisol.
“Cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.”Harvard Health Publishing, source
Emotional eating can quickly turn to binge eating. MEDA (Multi-Source Eating Disorders Association) says that this slippery slope is more of a continuum (source). Emotional eating can start as a snack or some comfort food that settles your nerves or fills your actual hunger, but it can quickly devolve into your only coping strategy, or something you do until it hurts you, either with physical pain and the need to purge or with shame and guilt.
While I’ve never purged, I do binge-eat when I eat my emotions, and just these realizations have begun to push me in a better direction. I am now more aware when I am slipping into my haze-eating, and I try to push the food away when it brings me to that state. However, in order for me to truly master this thing there are a few crucial things I need to address:
- My anxiety and stress need to go down.
- I need to find a new outlet that lets my mind quiet.
- I need to associate food as fuel not food as love.
These are some tall orders. I have found a few hypotheses, if not quite solutions.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Something I have never had a lot of success with is meditation. In all honesty, I’ve never really tried. I get bored quickly, or my mind runs away before I muster the patience to corral it back. The idea of sitting in the quiet and meditating has always seemed so foreign to me. I grew up in a house with noise and with music constantly. There was no respite unless to sleep, and even then – we slept with radios in our rooms.
Mindfulness is another practice that has seemed strange. How do I pay attention to the food I am eating more? Is it the simple act of knowing what I am eating? Am I supposed to focus on the sensation? Upon reflection, I can see how the mindless stuffing of food into one’s mouth can be a stumbling block, but again, I’ve never tried mindful eating.
This upcoming week, I am going to try meditating at least three times for at least 20 minutes each time. I will also try eating mindfully on a meal or two, and maybe I’ll report back some results on Instagram.
We are all taking up new hobbies while locked in our homes for our quarantine 2020. At Walmart the other day I noticed that all of the sewing kits were gone and it gave me a bit of a chuckle. Heck, I am currently blogging for the first time so I might be a hypocrite for laughing. I have been thinking about returning to some of my old hobbies, and seeing how they fare, since I’m ditching food as my best friend.
I have been crocheting on and off since 2018, and I have owned a guitar since 2011 or so. I also love playing video games with my husband, so I am going to prioritize doing some hobbies of mine through the week and seeing what sticks again.
Here is the hardest one. How does one break an association? Is this a Pavlov situation that I need to reprogram? Is this a gradual process that will happen as I avoid using food as my comfort? I’m going to pose this question to any followers here or on Instagram, and hopefully we can start some dialogue. I’d love to have a post about this in the future.
This post has been a little heavy. I realized the truth of it as I was writing. I actually spoke up while writing and mentioned it to my husband – how far back this goes for me. I’ve been an emotional eater for a long time. There is some hope that as I address my anxiety and continue seeing my therapist (bless you Michelle), that I’ll continue to make strides.
What sorts of habits have you broken? How have you changed a negative association to a good one?
Thanks for reading, y’all.