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!”
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?“