Home Emotional Eating Ending Emotional Eating, and The Transformative Art of Self-Care: Part I

Ending Emotional Eating, and The Transformative Art of Self-Care: Part I

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I’m going to work to commit every Thursday evening to writing about self-care – what it is, how you can achieve it, and how we can become better together. As this series progresses, feel free to chime in with your thoughts, questions and concerns. You are now viewing part 1. View part 2. View part 3. View part 4. View part 5.

Right now, in this exact moment, I am painfully aware of the need for self-care.

One of the most important points of my weight loss journey was the moment that I began to self-identify as an emotional eater. I finally wrapped a name and a thought process around this… thing… that I’d been doing my whole life. I’d finally been able to acknowledge my struggle and what it’d been doing to me.

It also showed me the gaping flaw in how I cared for myself: I didn’t.

Just as brushing your teeth, washing your hair, and paying your bills are seen as important, so is checking in with yourself emotionally and mentally. Spending time gauging how you feel, how stressed you are, how unhappy you feel, how traumatic experiences and stressors are affecting you, and what aids you in recovering from said stressors and traumatic experiences is paramount. Otherwise, you might very well find yourself doing what I did – resorting to self-harm to relieve stress and feel happiness, fleeting though it may be.

When I think back to some of my earliest moments of being stressed and depressed, I was a teen. One traumatic moment after the next happened, and I’d run to my mother for some kind of solace. Some kind of consolation. A hug, a kiss, an ounce of compassion. I’d reach out for some kind of acknowledgement of my pain, and I’d be met with a very stern, “Well, what the hell do you want me to do, Erika?! Get OVER it, already!”

stressed out woman

Make no mistake about it – my mother wasn’t an intentionally cruel woman. She wasn’t some person who spent her life being coddled, yet instead chose to treat me like someone undeserving of consolation. She was, quite frankly, teaching me the same way she was taught. She was forcing me to self-soothe because this was what she was told to do growing up. In fact, the only difference between the two of us, was that she didn’t have junk food as readily available as I did when she needed to self-soothe. She learned the hard way what it meant to “steel up” and “deal with it” and “let it go” and “get over it.” I, on the other hand, could always get my hugs from bags of Cheez Twisters and Pringles.

When we talk about “self-soothing,” we are often talking about infants. Babies who need to just “cry it out” and “get over it” so that they don’t “become spoiled.” The world is “hard” and “tough” and, because of these realities, we don’t need babies who constantly whimper whenever they’re outside of their parent’s presence because they want hugs. Get over it. Cry it out.

As adults, however, this becomes a weirdly dangerous prospect, the idea of self-soothing compounded with the belief that adults don’t cry. We’re no longer infants who can hardly change themselves, let alone walk to the nearest source of self-harm and engage in it until we are satisfied. We’re adults – perfectly aware of our need for a “fix,” perfectly capable of hiding our “habit” from the masses (that is, unless your particular habit of choice makes you fat), and acutely aware of what it takes to move emotionally from point A to point B.

But what is that “point A?” and what is that “point B?”

Both happiness and pain, stress and relaxation, and virtually all moods in-between are paired with chemical reactions in the brain, no matter what caused those particular feelings. When your brain encounters experiences that make you sad or feel pain, it immediately hunts for experiences that bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s looking for those “feel-good” chemicals that come with those “feel-good” experiences… or foods, as it were.

Processed foods are explicitly engineered to circumvent the natural processes your body might otherwise go through to encourage the quest for pleasure and satisfaction, merely providing your body with the perfect combination of sugars, fats and salts to cause the chemical reaction to come anyway. And, in a life devoid of healthy, non-self-harming ways of self-soothing, it becomes the fastest way to make yourself feel better when stress is overwhelming you. It becomes a quick get-away, a respite from an otherwise unpleasant world.

From my favorite book of all time, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite:

Eating and the desire to eat need to be understood as separate activities involving separate mechanisms in the brain. Their distinct roles help us understand another brain chemical: dopamine.

If opioids give food its pleasure and help keep us eating, dopa- mine motivates our behavior and impels us toward food. By strengthening our sense of anticipation, dopamine gets us to engage in a complex set of pursuit-and-acquisition behaviors so we can recapture the remembered pleasure of a favored food. Dopamine drives desire through a survival-based capacity known as “attentional bias.” Defined as “the exaggerated amount of attention that is paid to highly rewarding stimuli at the expense of other (neutral) stimuli,” attentional bias allows us to pick out what matters most so we can pursue it. It gives rewarding foods their prominence in our minds. The more rewarding the food, the greater the attention we direct toward it and the more vigorously we pursue it.

John Salamone, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, was a graduate student when he first

noticed that hungry animals became extremely hyperactive when offered food pellets. In fact, they behaved like animals that had been treated with amphetamines. Salamone also noticed that blocking dopamine with an antagonist drug damped down that frenzied activity considerably.

He went on to study how hard animals with normal levels of dopamine will work to obtain food rewards, compared to those with depleted dopamine levels. Salamone’s research team placed four tasty food pellets at one end of the top of a T-shaped maze and two pellets at the other end. The rats learned where the larger portion of food was available, and when they reached the T intersection, they consistently turned toward the larger food portion. When investigators depleted the rats’ dopamine levels, the animals slowed their movement toward food but still maneuvered their way to the four pellets.

Salamone’s next step was to erect an eighteen-inch barrier that made access to the four-pellet side harder. A lot of training was required before animals with normal levels of dopamine were able to do the considerable work necessary to overcome that obstacle and reach the food. Watching them scale the barrier was a bit like watching Richard Gere master the obstacle course in An Officer and a Gentleman, Salamone said. “The rats get a running start, they leap to the top of the barrier, they grab it and fling themselves over, and then they go down the other side and they eat their four pellets.”

From an evolutionary perspective, that effort made sense. “Dopamine is involved in the activational aspects of foraging behavior,” Salamone explained. “And this is very important for survival, because a part of survival is being able to expend enough energy and be active enough to gain access to the stimuli that are necessary.”

Dopamine-depleted animals behaved differently. They were unwilling to work hard enough to overcome the barrier. Instead, they settled for the easier option, turning to the unobstructed side of the maze to reach the two pellets.

When it comes down to it, an otherwise natural response to low dopamine levels is exploited in a way that, in an increasingly stressful world, becomes addictive. It becomes dangerous. In a world where employers are demanding so much more from us for such little pay; families are infinitely demanding of our time, money, and other resources; bills are piling high; you’re struggling with suspecting your spouse is cheating… in other words, processed food is all too readily available in a world where the stress is high and our earliest examples of overcoming it are “get over it.”

My battles with learning what my emotional eating habit meant to me, put me at odds with myself. I had this habit that I couldn’t shake, and I became angry with myself. Why am I so stupid? Why am I so weak that I can’t give this thing up? I spent hours crying, because without processed food I was left to face all of these emotions that I’d spent so much time drowning with sugars, fats, and salts. I had no idea what to do with myself or all these feelings I now had to deal with.

I often talk about the conversation I had with my sorority sister, a licensed psychotherapist, who casually dropped the term “coping mechanisms” in the middle of our conversation. I shared with her that I was afraid of myself and my inability to deal with what I was thinking and feeling, and I feared taking it out on my daughter. She responded, “Oh, honey… you just need some solid coping mechanisms – you know, how you deal with stress.”

“What the hell is a coping mechanism?”

Next Thursday’s discussion: “What the hell is a coping mechanism?

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Jessica May 23, 2014 - 11:37 AM

What is a coping mechanism? Huummmm, to me its just how you mentally and physically deal with something, anything, whether its good or bad. My coping mechanism for stress or adverse situations was learned when I encountered it as a child. When I would get in trouble, my mother would give me my “beat down” LOL, sentence me to the rest of the night in my room and out of her face, then I would cry about it. Eventually, I would get a terrible headache from crying and my only way to escape the headache was to sleep. I learned that when I am stressed or something bad has happened, cry it out then take a nap. Growing up, when I had hard situations I hardly went to my Mother or family or friends. I had to cry it out, then sleep on it. As I slept, I could kind of find a way to resolve the issue or make it manageable. Now that I am an adult, I talk to friends and family and my husband about issues. But I still don’t get many hugs and consoling. It seems that sympathy or empathy is non-existent. What I get is similar to what your mother gave you. I get “there’s people with worst situations”, or “life is hard, you just have to keep pushing”. It’s like damn it, I know life is hard and rough and all that BS, just give me a hug and shut your mouth LOL. Maybe I will go back to crying it out and sleeping on it. Then I can hug myself at least while I cope, LOL.

Rochelle Wade May 24, 2014 - 8:56 AM

It’s powerful to read this literally after Ive xome to understand this about myself in the past few days. I actually talked about this as it applied to myself in my blog last night. Now I’m on the road of trying to figure out what the heck I need to do to change this.

Thank you for writing about it. I’m looking forward to the next article.

Aliya May 24, 2014 - 10:26 AM

Thanks for starting this discussion Erika. I’m so tired of starting and stopping only to start again. I’m trying not to consider the stops and just pick up and continue on before the negative actions & voices lead me back to those vices I’ve been getting away from. I have more medical issues than I care to admit right now and to know they’re all directly correlated with my weight is the most frustrating thing of all b/c I want to continue my journey to change them, but often feel myself thinking about it more than I’m doing it. I recently started back to the gym, went a few times w/my sister but sometimes I think her attempts at encouragement feel more like ridicule to me and I’m not so inclined to go w/her. Then my fiancée and I have been going in between and sometimes I feel like he’s trying to sabotage me in some ways, whether it’s intentional or not I’m unsure but we start off on track then he has an injury or isn’t motivated to go and try to guilt me if I’m still trying to get there or want to go for a walk, then he may want to reward me for all of the hard work with some vice I’m weaning myself from like cheesecake. I often feel like I need a better support system or a SUPPORT system period though I know this is MY journey and I’m going to have to do what I need to for me or continue to suffer inside, get angry at myself for not loving myself more or not fighting for my health with more conviction despite anyone or any roadblock. One of my goals is to make it to my next birthday(My 40th in January) healthier than I greeted this one this year. My goal is 100 lbs and I’m only about 18lbs down, I have a lot further to go. I appreciate you and your blog, you’re a constant inspiration. I’m ready to stop with the emotional eating but it can be hard, my addiction is calling for a huge bag of cheese curls right now, but I’m going to have some more water.

deltagirl333 May 24, 2014 - 11:00 AM

Wow, I cried while reading this.My story exactly, my Mom did the same thing. I struggle after having ovaries and every thing removed.I’m 50 pounds over my normal size. I work with ed and let kids that are all over the class with emotions so mines have to always be in check.I’ve been trying to lose weight. So far only 6 pounds. When I feel stress I eat, I’m trying so hard to beat this thing. But I’m struggling, its not sweets but food in general. Please help.You mentioned sorority sisters I’m a Delta by the way.

Kacey May 24, 2014 - 1:39 PM

This was a great post. Emotional eating is a struggle that I am dealing with currently. I often try to figure out the triggers (I know it is stress, but why go to food?) and be able to stop them. My main battle is binging. I know there are no excuses; but, then I still fail and eat a row of pecan sandies. So, I removed sweets from my house, but I will binge on whatever carbs are there. It is like my mind wants me to find something “bad” and eat it immediately. Of course, I know it screams I have no self control, but it is a cycle that I don’t know how to stop but I am continuing to try. It is truly an addiction.

Kassy May 24, 2014 - 7:56 PM

Great post, Erika! Can’t wait for the rest in this series. Really relevant and needed.

Marc June 5, 2014 - 2:37 AM

just found your blogs and love this post to the max. cant wait for the next post about the coping mechanism.

Angel June 13, 2014 - 4:14 PM

I had a friend say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. THIS was a few years ago, and i am still a fat girl and now besides being fat I also feel INSANE. I just ordered your book recommendation from Amazon and have got to chapter 2. Thanks for this blog…

South Dakota

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