Last year I learned something interesting about how I handle stress.
Usually it’s candy, but truthfully, I’m not too fussy. I’ll happily munch mindlessly on a ginger cookie, comfort eat myself to calm with a bowl of dried fruit or binge myself into a daze with a bag of spicy corn chips.
No matter the degree of awareness, intensity or digestive consequences, the basic overriding theme of my emotional eating episodes is always the same.
I eat when I’m not physically hungry.
Why!? I’ve often asked myself after bloating, tummy cramps, mental fog and an ever-persistent real challenge still in front of me.
The underlying reason is this.
Somewhere deep inside the neural wiring of my nervous system is an automated, unconscious pattern that goes as follows: Notice a threat. Feel stress. Soothe myself through food.
Whether that threat be an emotion I don’t want to feel, a business problem that has me stumped or the general overwhelm of raising four kids, I often turn to food in response to stress instead of solving the problem in front of me.
In summary, I have been trained to give up on myself.
That might seem harsh but that’s essentially what I’m doing when I fuzzy-peach my way through a challenging workday.
I’m giving up on my ability to solve my own problems and follow through.
Now, there’s lots of good reasons why I pick up the potato chips ranging from evolutionary to cultural to individual.
Anyone who has watched a suckling infant, knows that food is much more than nutrition. Food is love. We have an innate evolutionary impulse to use food for nurturing, comfort and self-soothing.
At the cultural level, we are encouraged by the advertising industrial complex to look externally to make ourselves feel better. To buy, drink, consume or watch to settle ourselves. And that general cultural messaging which affects all of us, has a double impact when it comes to women as we are also conditioned by our culture to second guess our own abilities too.
And finally, at the individual level, early attachment trauma (which I won’t really get into here, but it’s more common than it seems) left me with that oh-so-annoying “not good enough” feeling.
Combined with a mother who soothed me with sweets when I was upset (no judgement. I’m guilty of the same in my own parenting), I experienced a perfect storm of influences all contributing to my knee-jerk, unconscious habit to eat in the face stress.
Awareness is the first step.
And one that took a great deal of therapy, journaling, meditating and running to get to.
Next I’m consciously working on practicing something else.
I’m reminding myself that I have other options. I’m developing in the moment somatic awareness of when I feel the impulse to eat.
Sometimes I’m able to catch myself in the middle of a binge.
And increasingly I’m making the choice to stare that gummy bear in the eye and say, “not today gummy. Not today.”
And what this does, besides saving myself from a few extra pounds and a bout of IBS, is give me back my power.
Each time I put away the gummy bear and redirect my energy towards my goals is a herculean act of courage.
Each time I make that choice, I am building new neural pathways. Ones that say “Yes Liz, you can do this. You can solve your own problems.”
Instead of training myself to give up, I am training myself to fight and dig in.
And that’s something I think a lot of us women need more of.