by Glynis Sherwood
Stop the world and let me off
I’m tired of going round and round…
~ Patsy Cline
Ms. Cline’s plaintive cry from half a century ago could also be an anthem for today’s life in the fast lane. Many people feel they have lost control in a 24/7 world, leading to large numbers of western people operating in chronic states of stress. I believe that a key to managing stress is to get back to basics, and regaining control of things we can control but often take for granted – in this case, our eating habits.
The Stress – Eating Connection
In a world where everyone feels pressure to be on the go all the time, food can be used as a substitute for comfort and relaxation. It’s a way to give something back to ourselves. But – like any compulsive habit – it can also be a detour that never satisfies or causes further problems. This can happen if food gets misused like a drug, leading to chronic unmet needs that literally get ‘stuffed in’, overweight or health problems.
Eating can also be relegated to the ‘back burner’ of life if people come to believe there aren’t enough hours in the day to take care of their basic needs. When we give in to feeling driven, we submit to the belief that life is a treadmill that we have no choice but to be tied to. Food becomes an afterthought in this situation, demoted to irrelevant status, rather than being seen as a building block of life and a source of genuine pleasure. Living on the run, we can easily forget about nutrition and healthy choices and start existing on fast food, shoveling it in mindlessly while at our computers or zoning out in front of the TV.
Emotional aka ‘Addictive’ Eating
The common theme between these two scenarios is that stress is running the show. Stress – in the form of feeling chronically anxious, driven, sad, dissatisfied, lonely or generally upset – is the fuel that feeds addictive eating. Eating then becomes a form of ‘self medicating’ painful emotions. For example, if you are chronically lonely, eating – especially high fat, high sugar foods that stimulate pleasure centers in the brain – can be a temporary diversion from that distressed feeling. However, once you have finished distracting yourself with food, the loneliness will return. If you have been binge eating, you may also be dealing with guilt, nausea or weight gain on top of loneliness, which might further prompt you to binge again to forget the guilt. Like any compulsive behavior, the vicious circle of addictive eating can start this way, in an attempt to make oneself feel better in the moment. The hook happens when needs remain unmet long term, prompting repetitive binge eating. Addictive eating perpetuates itself by promoting the false hope that food can solve your problems. The sad fact is that the ‘solution’ ends up being worse than the problem.
What To Do
The key here is to figure out what you are literally ‘hungry’ for, and find a way to meet that need in a healthy manner. Do you need companionship? Do you need to be less driven? Do you need to feel less fearful or anxious? To overcome sadness? To have a stronger sense of self worth? To grieve a loss? Identify what you need to feel better, and make a plan to get there. If you don’t know what to do or where to begin, connect with a qualified counsellor for support and guidance.
Unconscious – aka mindless – eating takes root when you fall prey to the belief that eating is a luxury you don’t have time for, due to work or family obligations. Or you may think that food is unimportant. You likely tend to eat quickly or on the run, and may give minimal thought to the quality of the food you are consuming, or the restorative function of taking a break during meal times.
The truth is that unconscious eating is hard on both the mind and the body. If you think that you don’t have time to eat, you have essentially lost control of your life. You have become stuck on a hamster wheel of pursuing work demands or caring for others that puts you at the end of your own line, with no end in sight. Well being can start to decline if you don’t take the time to eat nutritious, balanced meals that are the building blocks of physical and mental health. You also deprive yourself of meal breaks away from activities. Breaks are essential to avoiding burnout and the breakdown of the body due to illness.
What To Do
If you feel driven to the point of ‘skipping’ eating, you need to stop and ask yourself what you believe about yourself and your life as a relentless worker bee. Is your sense of self worth overly invested in being productive? Are you a workaholic (aka work addicted)? Are you afraid of being rejected – or fired – if you don’t give 110%?
Be honest with yourself about the toll that this imbalance is taking on you. Do you have headaches or indigestion? Do you feel exhausted? Does your body hurt? Are you irritable, unhappy or anxious? Are you starting to experience serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, obesity or acid reflux?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions then you are in crisis mode. Ask yourself how important it is for you to take back your life from being driven? What will life be like if you don’t deal with this problem now? In other words, what will it cost you to maintain the status quo?
Next, allow yourself to get a really clear, detailed picture of what you want your life to look like. Perhaps you had a vision once but lost it. Or your goals for life may have changed. The important thing here is to visualize the kind of life you want and deserve, and then take steps to make it happen. Again – as with compulsive eating – if you are stuck regarding how to move forward, a skilled counsellor can help you gain the perspective and skills to be able to break free from obsessive beliefs and behavior.
How To Mind What You Eat and Eat Mindfully
Mindful eating has two components: 1/ Healthy food choices, and 2/ Healthy eating rituals.
Foods That Support Wellness & Mental Health
In spite of the flood of books, blogs, articles and TV shows on the topic, healthy eating is actually very simple. On a daily basis you need to consume raw vegetables, some fruit, clean water, healthy fats from source (e.g. raw nuts, avocados), healthy protein (can be vegetable based, such as beans) and minimal grains. Avoiding refined carbohydrates will regulate your blood sugar, helping to keep your mood stable. Choose locally grown, organic, non GMO foods as much as possible.
Other mood boosting nutrients and supplements include omega 3 fatty acids (e.g. ground flax seeds), Vitamin D (in drastic shortage in people living north of the southern USA), Vitamins B12 and B6, and Magnesium. Thanks to factory farming practices, these nutrients are generally not available in adequate amounts in foods today, and need to be consumed as supplements.
Healthy Eating Rituals
Preparing and eating tasty, healthy meals in a relaxed frame of mind is both restorative and soothing. It’s important to have at least one meal per day – usually supper – when you can take the time to enjoy your food, let go of the stress of the day and perhaps catch up with people you care about.
Cooking as a ritual requires us to slow down and pay attention to a simple activity that is a conscious way of taking care of ourselves and, sometimes, giving to others. The deliberate act of just focusing on food preparation is a gentle way of de-stressing and reclaiming balance in an overly hectic world. Most people tell me that the food they prepare themselves is the most enjoyable. It’s also reassuring to know that you are in control of what you are eating, and providing yourself with the best quality food possible.
It’s also important mentally and physically to take your time eating your meal, avoiding computers, TV and other overly stimulating activities. Setting the table and focusing on this one restorative activity can go a long way to helping you relax and unwind. Meals at their best are quiet reflection times that replenish and rebalance us, so we can feel calmer and more satisfied as we carry on with life’s ongoing stressors, demands and challenges.
Need help overcoming stress-based /addictive eating habits? Click Here to Request a Counselling Appointment
Counselling is available online by Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor (BC), Certified Addictions Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Stress, Food Addiction, Work Addiction, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression and Grief. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!