I’m a chronic comfort eater. I eat when I’m sad, when I’m bored, when I’m anxious, when I’m tired, when I’m angry, when I’m stressed……I rarely eat because I’m actually hungry. If any of the above are the reasons for my eating, I also barely taste whatever it is I’m trying to settle myself with because I eat it so fast. 9 times out of 10 it will be the wrong kind of food, and while it temporarily makes me feel better (generally just as long as it takes me to get it down my neck), I will usually regret it fairly soon afterwards. The last few months have been particularly bad (bar a brief interlude of saintliness), and I’m currently heavier than I’ve ever been.
All of these things bother me, because while I know I’m doing it, I cannot seem to stop it. I’ve had many conversations about this with Hubby, many more hours berating myself in my head, and have set many, many, MANY well intentioned but ultimately unattainable goals. While I’m not very overweight, I’m not happy about how I physically feel, and I think it’s the lack of control I have around it that’s getting to me more than how I actually look. I’m reasonably sure I’m not the only one who feels like this.
I spoke about it with Therapist 2.0 this morning, and as I’ve come to expect, she gave me the why behind all of it. Every time I see her, I’m left astounded at how understandable all this behaviour is when I hear what’s causing it, and it all comes back to the same thing – the messages that are flying back and forth between brain and body. I know I’m not going to explain this well, but the gist of it is something like this. When we’re stressed/anxious/angry etc our threat system gets activated (that’s the one that kicks us into fight or flight mode). In order to get our bodies ready to run, our brain sends us looking for energy, which is why we automatically go for sugar and/or carbs, because these can be converted into glucose really quickly. But, because we don’t then go and actually do any running, there’s nowhere for the glucose to go, so it gets stored as excess fat, generally around our stomachs, because that’s where it’s easiest for our system to access it if it’s needed in a hurry.
She also talked about borrowing from ourselves, for example with coffee, or chocolate. We’re tired, we reach for caffeine or sugar, it gives us an instant energy boost but when it wears off, we’re left feeling worse than we did before. The coffee/sugar etc don’t actually create any energy, they just help us use our energy more quickly for a short while, and then leave us with fewer resources later on.
It’s incredible to hear all this, and to start to understand just how complicated our minds are. In evolutionary terms, our brains react to life as if we’re still living in caves and foraging for food. We’re genetically programmed to see food and eat it, to reach for high energy food when we’re stressed. But we don’t need to do that any more. Again, what’s really being hammered home to me is how much this is not our fault. We’re not consciously deciding (well not all the time anyway) to do what we know is counter productive, we’re simply responding to a primitive urge that for me at least until very recently I just wasn’t aware of.
How can we be expected to manage and even change these behaviours if we don’t know why they’re happening in the first place? It’s all well and good to tell me eating my five a day will help keep me well, chocolate is bad, stress is making me comfort eat and that if I change the way I think then everything will be ok. But knowing what that actually means and why it’s causing me to act as I do? It’s huge!! It’s giving me the chance to put some distance between me and the urge, and that allows me to step back and try and work out what it really is that I need.
In theory. I think. This is all very, very new to me so I’m sure I’m not doing the subject any justice at all, but it’s incredibly exciting to be able to start to see behind all these coping strategies I’ve developed, and just how many of them come back to the fact that I seem to have spent quite a significant portion of my life in fight or flight mode. Changing it is not going to be easy, not by a long shot, but having awareness of it has to be a pretty big first step.