by Jenn Krebs, N.D.
As I discussed earlier this summer in Part One, the types of foods we eat play a huge part in why we eat too much. And yet to look at food addiction and binge eating disorder holistically, we must explore how our relationship with our body affects what we choose to eat, how much we eat, and how challenging it is to feel or know when we are full.
When I talk about our relationship with our bodies, I am talking about how we feel in our bodies and how we feel about our bodies. How we perceive our bodies, how we move our bodies, and how well we know our bodies.
For some people, the body is the vehicle that takes us from place A to place B on any given day. To a few, the body may simply be a nuisance (something to feed, clean and maintain) as the mind and intellect take a much more important role. For most of us anyway, we strike a healthy balance between stimulating, growing, nurturing, challenging, nourishing and enjoying both the body and the mind on a daily basis.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the mind and the body are not separate entities. It’s not so hard to imagine how our mind is “body” because we study the brain and the nervous system in anatomy class. It may be a bit more of a stretch to see the how the body is “mind,” to imagine that each cell, each tissue, and each organ has a mind – an ability to listen, learn, understand, feel, and know. We have Candace Pert, PhD, to thank for pioneering the science behind mind-body medicine and discovering that the chemicals that circulate in our bodies don’t distinguish between a physical body and an emotional or intellectual mind; these chemicals see the mind and body as the same. For example, the same hormone may simultaneously have an effect on our brain, our stomach, our thyroid, and our nerves making it difficult to distinguish between mind and body.
So before I venture into a discussion on mind-body techniques and their effect on eating dysfunction, it is important to realize that whether it is a food we eat, a thought we think, or a bike ride we take, we are releasing nutrients, hormones and chemicals in our bodies that have the potential of interacting with every organ, every system, and every cell in our body … this is the basis for all mind-body medicine.
Using Food to Numb and Avoid our Feelings
One of the more common observations we can make when looking at why we eat more than we need is how easy it is for us to use food to numb or distract from our feelings. As I explained in Part One, certain foods like sugar, grains and food additives can create a true addiction in the body. The hormonal and chemical surges that in turn elevate our moods act to replace feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. We begin to use food as a way of numbing and avoiding deeper feelings of frustration, isolation, inadequacy, anger, etc. Interestingly, when we talk about withdrawal from any drug, including food, we see an increase in one’s anxiety and irritability.
I find that individuals who overeat or binge tend to do so during stressful and/or emotionally challenging times, when they need some “relief” from the intensity of their feelings. Overeating is often combined with other distracting behaviors like watching television or playing video games, and the cumulative effect is mindless consumption. As we are faced with more and more stress in our lives, we look for ways to cope. For some individuals, this will mean reaching for a substance or engaging in a behavior that numbs or distracts.
There is no question that food is a drug; it acts like a drug, and it can create a physiologic and biochemical reaction and dependence in the body. You may remember from Part One that the elevations or surges in endorphins, serotonin, blood sugar, and/or insulin create “highs” in our body that feel good and keep us coming back for more. The repetition of the behavior and the payback of feeling the “high” are both hallmarks of addiction. Make no mistake, we use food as a drug. It is a very real way that we avoid, numb and distract from our stress, emotions, and “negative” feelings.
Feeling Empty and Feeling Full
In the mind-body work I do with patients, we focus the attention on how we feel in our bodies before we eat, while we eat, and after we are done (this is the basis for mindful eating techniques, which I will talk about in more detail later). We struggle in our busy and stressful lives to take the time to feel ourselves … to feel our bodies, our breath, our sensations, our experiences, and our feelings. Sometimes I can’t remember whether I have eaten lunch or not, as I have been madly rushing between work and family responsibilities. Sometimes I don’t take the time to sit down and eat breakfast, instead I eat standing at the kitchen counter while I do three other things. I often mindlessly eat my children’s leftovers because I am too tired to cook something for myself. It is this kind of a fast-paced, over-worked lifestyle that causes a disconnect between ourselves and the food we put in our bodies.
Do we really feel ourselves at all as we shove food in our mouths or gulp coffee while in the car or at our desks at work? Do we place any emphasis on mindfully eating our meals, chewing our food and feeling the sensations or pleasure of tasting our food? Even when we take the time to eat a healthy, balanced meal, we may still approach our food with the same disconnect. We rarely take a moment to feel ourselves as we taste, swallow and digest food, and for many it is a challenge to know when we are full, finished or satiated. Do we even acknowledge the fact that we have made a conscious decision to gather around a table and commune with family and friends? Do we understand the importance that food plays in our growth, our nourishment and our existence?
Many of us complain that we have difficulty knowing when to stop eating, feeling when we are full, and knowing when enough is enough. When we look at the anatomy of an addiction, we understand better this phenomenon, as we often need more and more of the drug to get ”high” and we lose touch with our natural cues and feelings. But there is yet another interesting phenomenon, the one where we don’t even know if we are hungry or not. We don’t always check in with ourselves before a meal or a snack to see if we are really hungry. Sometimes we are so use to eating and/or snacking at a particular time that it does not feel necessary to check in with ourselves as to whether we are truly hungry or not. Another reason may be that we consume a lot of “cheap fuel.” When we eat a lot of sugar, caffeine and refined carbohydrates, we either burn through the fuel too fast, or experience highs and lows that confuse our natural feelings and cues of hunger. Taking into account our busy, stressful lives, the absence of mindfulness surrounding our meals and meal time, and the large amount of sugar we eat, it’s a wonder that we have any consciousness surrounding the food we eat at all.
Feeding the Emotional or Spiritual Emptiness
Another contributing factor to eating too much seems to be a need to fill a void or a sensation of emptiness within. While one reason we eat is to feel a “high,” another reason may be to feel whole or filled up.
Feeling “empty” can be disconcerting and frightening, and for some existentially alarming. I recently had a bodywork session with a patient where she realized that feeling hungry was terrifying to her; she could not distinguish whether this “hunger” was truly a hunger for food or something else. We might understand this “terrifying” reaction better if the patient had had a history of starvation, but that was not the case with this individual. After exploring more about this terrifying sensation of “hunger,” it became clear that she was feeling a physical sensation of emptiness in her body. This physical sensation, in turn, was triggering feelings of unworthiness, abandonment and neglect. This patient was eating large amounts of food in a frantic and mindless way to avoid feeling this emptiness.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that many of us have a physical experience or sensation for our emotional and/or spiritual feelings. If we are feeling disconnected from friends and family, if we are feeling sad or lonely, if we are feeling disappointed or frustrated, if we are feeling unfulfilled or angry, we feel these feelings physically in some manner or form. Whether the feelings manifest as emptiness, knots in the abdomen, headaches, butterflies in the stomach, hunger, etc., we feel our emotions … remember that body and mind is not as separate and distinct as we may have thought.
These physical sensations and experiences can feel very real and are very real. It is always helpful for a patient to describe the physical experiences and to be encouraged to feel them. By recognizing and validating these feelings, we encourage a reconnect of the body and mind! We build a bridge within ourselves.
There is nothing wrong or pathological in having physical experiences of our emotional or spiritual struggles. The problem lies in that we don’t understand them. We eat to fill up the emptiness. We distract ourselves with TV, video games, and social media to avoid emotional and spiritual discomfort. We numb ourselves with food, alcohol, drugs and medication to avoid the feelings. There is so much support today for individuals struggling with complicated feelings, stress and emotions; there exists all forms of mental health and spiritual counseling, support groups, call centers, community centers, and emergency health facilities. We have a lot of support available to us and yet that support must compete with all the distraction, stimulation and numbing of the world around us. If we can begin to create some bridges within ourselves (a stronger sense of self and connection to our bodies), we begin to turn down the volume of the noise around us.
Feeling and Listening to our Bodies vs. Weighing and Sizing Them Up
I wrote a newsletter devoted to this topic last fall called “Our Inner Reflection.” We have been encouraged, taught and programmed to look outside ourselves for information regarding ourselves. We look in a mirror or get on a scale to measure our weight and our self-worth. I find this plays a huge role in mindless and binge eating. Again, the more we depend on an outside source to give us information or feedback on how we “feel about ourselves,” the harder it is to trust, connect with and hear our own bodies, our own cues, and our own feelings.
Mindful eating techniques are an important part of bridging that gap between not feeling or paying attention to ourselves and being mindful of our choices, our behaviors and our experiences. When we learn to eat mindfully, we begin to pay attention to what we choose to put in our bodies. We are conscious of how we prepare our food, where we eat our meals, and how quickly we consume our food. We ask ourselves whether we chew or simply swallow our food, and what it feels like to taste, enjoy, and experience our food. Taking mindful eating to another level, we pay attention to what the food feels like in our bodies, what it feels like when we are satisfied vs. stuffed, what is feels like to leave food behind on our plates, and what it feels like to stop eating before we are completely full.
These exercises are not as simple as they initially sound. And yet they do encourage us to have an inner dialogue with ourselves and our bodies that can trump the external voices of magazines, television and internet. Anytime we grow our ability to look inward, to hear our inner voice and to feel our inner self, we build a bridge toward greater insight and stronger self.
Sitting with the Discomfort rather than Running to the Cupboard
We have looked at how we use food to avoid, numb and distract. But what happens when we don’t distract ourselves? What happens when we are feeling anxious, tired, angry, frustrated, stressed? What happens when we don’t reach for the cupboard or the refrigerator door?
When I talk to patients about making the choice not to reach for food, here’s a sampling of what I hear. “But I’m anxious at night and I need to eat.” “I really feel how alone I am when I’m at home, so I eat.” “I am bored and eating gives me something to do.” “I’m tired and stressed out and eating make me feels better.” “All my willpower goes out the window after 8pm and I can’t stop.” “When it’s dark out I feel more tired and depressed. Eating makes me feel better, at least for the time being.”
It is clear that we use food to make ourselves feel better, even if it is just for the time being. What could we do instead? There are definitely healthier ways to soothe and comfort ourselves. I have talked about healthier coping mechanisms and self-soothing skills in other newsletters. To briefly recap, exercise or movement can elevate the mood. Meditation, breathing exercises, or taking a warm bath can enhance relaxation. Journaling helps to process feelings and thoughts. And reading, listening to music, or doing word puzzles/games can prevent or divert obsessive or negative thinking.
Another approach to avoiding the pull of the cupboard is to begin to sit with the discomfort. This may sound uncomfortable and unnecessary, but I believe strongly that sitting with our anxiety, our stress, and our discomfort is not only very helpful but quite necessary. If we always reach for a distraction, a “high,” or something to avoid our “negative” feelings, we don’t learn how to navigate ourselves through tough times. Sadness, anger, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, fear and stress are all common experiences in today’s world. We do need to learn how to stay present with ourselves through difficult feelings and difficult experiences.
I am the first one to encourage individuals to reach out to others and talk about their struggles; we have many outside resources available to us when these feelings become overwhelming, when we feel helpless, or when we simply need another perspective. But we also have many inner resources for coping with and feeling our pain. Sometimes simply knowing that we can get through an emotional challenge without numbing, avoiding or eating is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. We learn we can withstand emotional discomfort, we can sit with anxiety, we can feel emotional pain, … and we survive. We can feel ourselves, during both the good and the bad times, and still be okay. We don’t need to stuff, numb, distract and avoid our emotions. Remarkably, when we can stay present with ourselves through both happy and stressful times, we gain emotional resiliency and flexibility. We build a bridge to a greater understanding of the self … an entity that is both mind and body.