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Despite how the media and others may portray it, compulsive overeating has little to do with dieting and everything to do with emotions. It’s really about medicating feelings – using food to suppress emotions. Sometimes we use food to not have to feel a specific emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, anger, hurt, or anxiety.
We can use food:
- To comfort ourselves (I need to be consoled).
- As a source of pleasure (This cake is the only thing that makes me feel good. There is no other place in my life that I receive pleasure. I enjoy good food. I’m a foodie!)
- As a reward (I’ve had a long day, I deserve it.).
- As a stress reliever. (I like my bowl of ice cream. It gives me a little break from the rest of my life.)
Often people who have little pleasure in other areas of their life may use food in some of these ways. And most of the time, this is not a conscious choice, but a subconscious one.
Is similar to compulsive overeating, but at its heart it still has the same emotional components. Eating compulsively may come in a binge-like pattern, as opposed to chronic, yet it still needs to be addressed. It may not be every day or even every week, but at certain times, you may have a day or a week in which too much is eaten.
This might only translate to an extra five or ten pounds. But with this type of episodic eating, it’s very difficult to lose that extra weight, because it’s not about eating the right foods or being able to diet. It’s really about the emotions behind the overeating.
How do you know if your behavior has become a problem? Do you…
- Feel your eating is out of control.
- Eat what most people would think is an unusually large amount of food.
- Eat much more quickly than usual during binge episodes.
- Eat until you are so full that you are uncomfortable.
- Eat large amounts of food, even when you are not really hungry.
- Eat alone because you are embarrassed about the amount of food you eat.
- Feel disgusted, depressed or guilty after overeating.
(source: Doctor Weil)
Do you feel as if some of those might pertain to you?
Finding The Source: Exploring Other Factors That May Have Helped Form Current Eating Patterns
It might be important to understand how we got here. We all have our own reasons for turning to food in a way that is unhealthy for us. Compulsive overeaters may have a history of sexual abuse.
Eating in this way and having extra weight helps them to not feel attractive to someone else. Extra weight can also help a person to feel safer, more distanced from the people around them. Again, this is usually subconscious.
Another factor in overeating is our childhood experience, especially if food was a source of either comfort or conflict within the family.
If you perhaps had a little extra weight growing up, then the way your parents dealt with it could still be significantly impacting you later on in life. Especially if a parent used any sort of shaming or blaming statements, then you might have had a negative association with food.
This may have caused the current cycle of overeating and negative body-image. Or, alternatively, if food was always used for comfort “here, have a cookie, you’ll feel better”, then we may have carried that into adulthood, too.
The messages that came from parents or others, whether extended family or friends, are often carried into adulthood, and then may translate into the kind of messages that we say to ourselves as adults. It’s almost as if the voices from childhood are perpetuated in adulthood by our own minds.
As a trauma specialist, I find that as a person starts to move through emotional trauma, the person starts to lose extra weight organically when the need is no longer there.
When Overeating Becomes A Habit
Although initially compulsive overeating serves an emotional purpose and may be in response to some specific external stress or internal conflict, it then evolves into a habit. Some people may report that they are in a good emotional state in their lives, yet they still seem to reach for their favorite comfort foods.
At this stage, it may have become a habit rather than an emotional need. The key here is to break the pattern. Do something different. For example, put a favorite song on, dance in the living room, call a friend. Substitute the reaching with something positive to break the pattern.
How Else Can We Start To Break Our Damaging Patterns?
When reaching for food, ask yourself what is going on for me in this moment? What is the reason I am grabbing for those cookies or chips? If there is no response that comes naturally with that question, then we can ask more specific questions. For instance: am I feeling stressed? Am I trying to avoid a conflict with my partner? Am I angry about what happened at work today? Am I feeling sad?
These are things we can ask and see if they resonate with us.
If you do find that there is an emotional component or an answer to your questions, then instead of reaching for food, allow for whatever is coming up. Ask yourself – how else might I alleviate the stress in this moment? Can I move my body, practice deep breathing, talk with a friend? How might I explore what’s going on?
Another question to ask is whether you are truly hungry. Often people who eat compulsively do not know what hunger feels like. This may be a new experience, and it may take time to figure out what true hunger is.
Managing Your Mirrors Before They Manage You
For some people, looking in the mirror can bring on many distressing feelings. If you are uncomfortable with mirrors, then just don’t look. Really! Although it may be challenging to pass a mirror and not look at it, if you feel upset or angry when you do, then it just adds to the pattern.
I’ve suggested to some of my clients that they remove mirrors or cover them up temporarily. It has been really helpful for people who find mirrors to be an issue.
Not Letting Clothing Dictate How You Feel About Yourself
Choosing what to wear every day can create a lot of anxiety. Putting on bulky, oversized clothes can contribute to not feeling good about yourself. It would be important to select clothes that they are comfortable in or feel attractive in. And if they don’t have those kind of clothes, then go out and buy some attractive clothes, so that you can feel good about yourself. This will help to address body image issues.
The Awesome Simple, And Complex, Power Of Changing Thoughts
We might think that we can change a thought simply by replacing it with another thought. Yet, while that may be correct, there is a lot more going on. If the human mind is more complex and expansive than the entire Cosmos, more study, understanding, and application may be called for, in dealting with individual issues of compulsive overeating or binging.
In order to get a hold on overeating, we have to learn to recognize our thought patterns. What are the things that you tell yourself? Critical, judgmental statements said to one’s self will destroy self-esteem, for instance things like “I’m so fat, I’m so overweight.” Sometimes it’s hard to know what came first – the low self-esteem or the compulsive over-eating pattern that may be in response to it.
It’s really important to come up with some self-loving compassionate statements to help build self-esteem. Perhaps something more like “I am working towards a beautiful body. I am doing the right things to help myself.” A therapist can really help here, addressing the specific, uncomfortable thoughts and finding ways to be kind to ourselves instead.
Nassau Guidance & Counseling have therapists thar are trained in helping to resolve compulsive overeating and trauma effects, and who are compassionate and experienced facilitators of emotional explorations.
They have successfully worked with many people who struggle with their relationships with food. If you or someone you know needs help, we hope that you will reach out and find the compassionate care that is available to you.
Resources: Further Information
(Not affiliated with Nassau Guidance & Counseling):