Food and Emotion

Overeating and restricting to chase away the pain.

Posted Aug 16, 2020

Food is often used to cope with emotion. For example, a person who feels shame about who he or she is may restrict food in order to punish himself or herself and alleviate shame. In other situations, a person may feel alone, craving human warmth and understanding, and food may be the closest physical representation of emotional sustenance. Either way, a person’s relationship with food is frequently about mitigating emotional discomfort.

When a person “mindlessly” eats or stress eats, he or she may be in the grips of a mild dissociative state. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that compels a person to subtly detach from the reality of a situation to escape emotional distress.

Daydreams and driving to work on “autopilot” are examples of slightly disassociated states which combat boredom, frustration, and feeling overwhelmed. In this state, a person may not be fully present, so the conscious awareness that food is not actually emotional sustenance may escape him or her. The compulsion to eat may be mesmerizing because food seems soothing.

Unfortunately, food is a poor substitute for emotional support and connection. Temporarily, eating feels good. Yet after overindulging, a person may feel full but his or heart may remain empty. The guilt and self-loathing that follows perpetuates the cycle. Feeing trapped in this sequence is miserable, but breaking the pattern is possible.

First, a person may try taking an inventory of the empathic people in his or her life. Talking about painful emotions helps if the person who is listening is truly empathic. Distressing feelings are usually remedied if they are understood and honored by a loved one instead of dismissed or ridiculed.

For example, say Sally comes home from work upset because her boss humiliated her in front of her subordinates. She confides in Bob. Bob listens attentively and says, “You must be so hurt. Your boss humiliated you. That is not acceptable. I would be upset too. I get it. Do you want a hug?” Sally takes the hug and sheds a few tears while Bob rubs her shoulder. Sally dries her eyes and asks Bob to go for a walk. Bob agrees. Sally feels much better.

Alternatively, say Sally attempts to tell her husband, Bob, how she feels but Bob shuts her down, saying, “I don’t want to hear it. I’ve told you five times to find another job if you do not like this one.” Sally feels worse. The only thing that seems appealing in that moment is the apple pie in the cupboard. She starts eating and cannot stop herself. After she is done with the pie, she feels sick.    

If a person receives empathy he or she usually feels understood, less alone in the predicament, and closer to the person who “gets it.” This may be the most effective remedy for emotional pain.

A person who lacks an empathic loved one in his or her life may consider rescuing a dog. Dogs are often warm, comforting, and ready to listen. Finding a therapist who suspends judgment, listens with an open heart, and tries to truly understand a person’s experience may also help. In addition, nature is also soothing. Research shows the outdoors reduces anxiety, releases endorphins, and helps a person feel grounded.

Second, the simple awareness that food and emotions are confusing may help. When a person becomes conscious of a tendency to mildly disassociate, he or she may be able to free himself or herself. Insight into the impulse to seek food for emotional comfort may empower a person to find more realistic sources of emotional support. Frequently, it can be tough to open up and talk about difficult feelings, but it may be worth it. The tendency to overeat may decrease and the resurrection of a healthier coping mechanism usually creates long-lasting change.

In the case of a person who restricts food, he or she may be attempting to find temporary relief from deep shame by punishing himself or herself. A person who is unconsciously ashamed of who he or she is may consciously experience this as contempt for his or her body. Punishing the body by withholding nutrients is a way to alleviate and control the constant experience of internal shame.

When unconscious shame is made conscious, a person has an opportunity to recover. The negative self-perception is likely a product of childhood trauma, emotional abuse, or trauma experienced in adolescence. Processing the traumatic experiences may help a person realize the self-loathing is a result of emotional mistreatment instead of an actual flaw within him or her. This may help improve a damaged self-perception. Recovering from past trauma assists a person in re-establishing his or her sense-of-self.

Food has a multitude of meanings. Often, a person’s relationship with food is a representation of how he or she feels about himself or herself. Many of these feelings escape a person’s conscious awareness and are transferred to food in ways in which the person is unaware. An understanding of how and why a person uses food, both unconsciously and consciously, may create a more peaceful and healthy relationship.

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