Some of the phrases we hear a lot on My 600 lb Life are “I need to eat something that tastes good;” “food is the only thing that calms me down;” and “food never lets me down.” While it’s easy to judge these patients and their obsession with food, we do the same things in our own lives. These patients are confusing what they want with what they need. What they need is comfort or relief from stress and anxiety and instead of truly fulfilling that need, they distract themselves with food.
We do the same thing, just on a lesser scale. For a lot of women, there’s the Chocolate Cliche: we fight or break up with our significant other and immediately head for the chocolate. We sometimes substitute ‘chocolate’ for ‘ice cream.’ For guys, it’s usually beer: they drink away the emotional upset. Whether, beer, chocolate or ice cream, we are medicating the unpleasant emotions with calories!
While most of us are familiar with the “emotional eating” concept, being aware of it is only beneficial if we change our behavior. On a recent episode, one of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients was still making excuses for her lack of weight loss, and upon finding out she had gained about 40 lbs instead of losing the 50 the doctor had wanted, she immediately began using stress as an excuse: “I’m an emotional eater and I’ve been under so much stress lately!” She is using emotional eating as an explanation for why she gained weight when it is really just an excuse. Like most of us, she’s using her emotions as permission to overeat.
When we get stressed, upset or anxious, we tend to distract ourselves with food by telling ourselves that the food comforts us. It makes us feel good and it distracts us from the fact that we are upset or we are worried. Distraction is not comfort: when the distraction is gone, i.e. we’ve eaten all the food, the stressor returns along with the realization that we just finished an entire pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk (chocolate and ice cream!) Now we feel the original stress and usually some guilt for eating all the ice cream: where are the potato chips??
The food is what we think we want, i.e., solace and comfort, but what we really need is a way to deal with our negative emotions. We need true comfort, not a yummy calorie-rich distraction! Real comfort makes you feel better after the ‘comfort’ is over. (Little hint: if you feel guilty about the ‘comfort’ afterward, it’s not true comfort!) True comfort can be as simple as talking to a friend or family member about whatever is upsetting you. It can be prayer or meditation or a controlled breathing technique. It can also be as simple as putting on a playlist and singing along or just spending time with your pets! Those last two examples are staples in my life: when I get stressed, I will put on one of my favorite playlists and concentrate on how much I enjoy the music. If I’m at home, I focus on my pets, how much I love them, how much enjoyment and love they bring into my life. Calling a friend is also a staple for me, whether it’s asking for some advice or just venting about my problem. Once I have relaxed a little and the stress or anxiety has stopped freaking me out, I can usually think about the situation a little more clearly. None of those have any guilt associated with them and they definitely don’t have calories! But, they all relieve my stress, anxiety and negative emotions.
There is also the misconception that feeling negative emotions is bad. Many of us are raised with the idea that we should never feel bad or have negative emotions. I don’t believe negative emotions are a bad thing. It’s normal to be upset when you’ve had a fight with someone you love. It’s normal to be frightened or scared or anxious. Feeling sad is also a normal human emotion. The emotions aren’t what’s bad: yes, they are uncomfortable, but the problems really arise when we handle these emotions badly. We normally handle them badly because we are anxious to get away from them as fast as we can. This is why nearly all of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients are referred to a therapist: to learn to deal with the negative emotions driving them to overeat.
I recall one of the therapists meeting with a patient (Erica Wall) and discussing a traumatic event in her past. Erica admitted to feeling very uncomfortable while discussing the event and the therapist responded by telling her that even though she felt uncomfortable, she was still safe and nothing bad was happening. Learning to sit with that uncomfortable feeling is a big step towards her healing. She made the same point I did above: it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, sad or upset at times.
The problem is that no one wants or likes feeling negative emotions. Why feel bad or anxious when you can feel good or happy? Bring on those cupcakes! Obviously, learning how to deal with negative emotions in a positive manner takes a little practice. Some of us– okay, most of us!– can feel a bit panicky when the negative emotions start flooding through our nervous system. We start looking for the quickest escape route: chocolate? sugar? chips? This is normal procedure for us. I remember after one argument with my mother, I ‘came to’ staring into the fridge and I didn’t even remember opening the door!
The reason I remember this little episode is that once I realized I was looking for something to eat because I was upset at my mother, I made a conscious choice not to eat anything. Rather than soothing my anxiety and negative emotions, I chose to handle them differently. (In this instance, I think I went on MFP and vented about my mother.) Allowing myself to feel angry and upset without eating my emotions helped me learn to deal with them. It didn’t feel great, but it wasn’t the end of the world either! Yes, I was upset for awhile, but after venting my frustration and not eating as a result, I actually felt rather proud of myself for handling it differently, instead of dealing with it like I used to and then feeling guilty for eating all the leftovers in my fridge!
One of the therapist Go-Tos for dealing with negative emotions is journaling. Writing down how you feel is one way of safely venting the negativity. No one ever has to see it but you, and if you want to shred it afterwards, that’s your choice! For a lot of people, it’s a good place to start learning to deal with the uncomfortable emotions we all have in our lives. Too often we feel foolish or awkward discussing our emotions, especially the ones we don’t want to deal with, but it’s this awkwardness and reluctance that gives them power over us. It is also why therapists are in such demand: we aren’t taught to deal with these emotions growing up so as adults we have to look to professionals for the help we need. There is no shame in getting help or looking for solutions outside ourselves. The real shame is when we remain locked in the emotional prison we made for ourselves.