A fortnight ago I was interviewed on Channel 7’s The Daily Edition about the psychology of comfort eating. The segment was in response to a fat-shaming photo of Prison Break star, Wentworth Miller, taken at a time when he was depressed and suicidal and was using food for comfort. He wrote ‘I was looking everywhere for relief/comfort/distraction. And I turned to food.’
Thirty years ago, that was me. Food was the trusted friend I came home to after a gruelling day. Food enabled me to hold back from crying, yelling and falling apart. But food was also stopping me from facing my fears, expressing my true self and living a full life. Why is this such a common scenario?
The reason so many people are prone to comfort eating is that we are not taught how to deal with unpleasant emotions so we want to stamp them out as quickly as possible. We’ve created a culture in which we think we have to be positive all the time: if you don’t feel good, you need to do something to feel good as soon as you can. This is not what life is about. There will always be periods of sadness. Painful as they are, they add to the depth and richness of life.
The other important issue is that comfort offered by comfort eating is short-lived because it often leads to guilt and self-criticism. We then crave even more comfort and a negative downward spiral ensues. And the emotional issue that triggered the comfort eating in the first place is no closer to being resolved so it’s only a matter of time before it surfaces again.
Some people turn to alcohol, drugs or other addictions to suppress their emotions but food is the most convenient, readily available and legal option so it’s an easy first choice. Also in many cases, using food for comfort is learned in our childhood. Did your parents ever give you a sweet treat to distract you when you were upset? It then becomes a habit to self-soothe with food as we grow up.
So what can we do to overcome comfort eating?
Firstly don’t beat yourself up for being a comfort eater. You are not alone. Many of us were taught to hide negative emotions because they made people around us feel uncomfortable. Were you ever told to ‘Just get on with it’ or ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’? This leads to being afraid of our emotions and wanting to suppress them.
When the desire to comfort eat arises, are you able to simply tune into your body and identify the feeling that is driving the craving? Take a deep breath and allow yourself to actually feel the feeling. And just sit with it. People are terrified they’ll be overwhelmed by painful feelings but you won’t be. It’s a very empowering experience to realise that we don’t need to suppress unpleasant feelings. We can just let them be and allow them to run their course. It often only takes a few minutes before the emotion dissipates and you’ll find yourself feeling remarkably refreshed and energised. Suppressing emotions is what’s exhausting. Letting them flow through you is uplifting.
If feeling your feelings seems too overwhelming or inappropriate in the moment, another strategy is to bring to mind a memory that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. This memory can give you the dopamine hit you crave and it can short circuit the need for food.
You can also plan ahead different ways of comforting yourself that don’t involve food. What about ringing a friend, taking a hot bath or having a massage? The more you have things to look forward to, the less you will feel the urge to comfort eat. The more you feed your spirt, the less you will punish your body.
Identifying your triggers to comfort eat can be an opportunity for making positive changes in your life. Start to become aware of the situations or emotions that drive you to eat. Stress at work? Arguing with your spouse? Generalised frustration? Or does it just seem to happen at certain times of the day or week? If it’s an identifiable event, are you able to communicate how you feel or do something to reduce your anxiety around the issue? Can you view the situation differently so it doesn’t feel so threatening? A psychologist or counsellor can be very helpful in teaching you skills to manage these situations. Wentworth Miller gave a very powerful answer to how he now feels about the photo that triggered the hurtful comments: ‘As with everything in life, I get to assign meaning. And the meaning I assign to this image is Strength. Healing. Forgiveness.’
When people stop expending energy suppressing their feelings with food, they report feeling much more alive and far less tired at the end of the day. Allowing yourself to feel your feelings can teach you about yourself and give you a whole new lease on life.
‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
If you’d like to watch Helena’s 4 minute TV segment on comfort eating, click on this link.