Do You Eat to Handle Anxiety? 3 Simple Steps towards Handling Anxious Eating
Mary was telling me: “I don’t know what happened. I got to the party and realized I didn’t know anyone except the host. I spent most of the time near the food table. I don’t think my mouth stopped moving and it wasn’t because I was talking!”
Mary was a client of mine who had been working with me to manage her compulsive eating and consequent weight gain. She had come a long way. She was practicing eating mindfully and exercising regularly. She had discovered she enjoyed tennis, after our discussion to find an exercise she liked. She was losing weight without dieting and loving it. The party was a big set back for her. She felt like she had gone back to her previous unconscious patterns with food. She didn’t understand why.
“Let’s unpackage this,” I suggested. “If we back track maybe you can gain some insight and awareness about what was happening around your relapse.” I also reassured her that the road to recovery is paved with relapse. If she could look at her relapse with some compassion for herself and curiosity, not only would it increase her self knowledge, it would lessen the likelihood of a relapse happening again.
Comfort Eating or using Food to Self Soothe
What Mary found out after some honest self exploration, was that she had been eating in an attempt to handle the anxiety that came up for her when she walked into the party where she barely knew anyone. The food table also felt like an easier place for Mary to strike up conversation with a total stranger. Mary was engaging in comfort eating or using food to self soothe.
Most of us have engaged in comfort eating at some time in our lives. Feeding was often used to soothe us as babies. For instance when a baby cries she usually gets the bottle or breast. Or if a child falls it’s typical for her to be given a sweetie or a treat to make it better. The media knows how to capitalize on our fixation as a culture with oral forms of comfort. You only have to watch 5 minutes of commercials to see an endless array of oral form of soothing; things to drink, eat, smoke, pills to pop etc.
There is nothing wrong with comfort eating, we all do it but Mary wanted to have more choice. She didn’t like feeling so powerless. The first step towards empowering her was to help her become more aware of her anxiety and how it manifested for her.
The first Step towards handling Anxiety: Naming it!
“What did you notice in your body when you walked into the party?” I asked her.
Mary wasn’t sure initially. She wasn’t used to tuning into her body in this way.
Eventually she was able to name the tightening in her chest and the shortness of breath that became her indicators that she was experiencing anxiety.
The Second Step: The Top 10 Soother List.
Now that she had developed some more awareness around her anxiety cues she could start to address other options for handling it. We worked on one of my favorites: The Top 10 Soother List. This is a list of options for self soothing that provides alternatives to comfort eating. It didn’t mean that Mary could never comfort eat again but now she knew she had other options.
Her Top 10 Soother list was as follows:
2/ Visualize my ‘safety anchor’ and/ or ‘safe place’
3/ Hold the ‘Little Mary’ (who was traumatized by going to a new school in the second grade and didn’t like new settings with new people) Reassure her.
4/ Practice gratitude exercise (i.e What am I grateful for right now? It activates the brain to scan for ‘good things’ versus threats)
5/ Smell some lavender oil (Mary carried around a vial because she found the smell calming.)
6/ Practice mindful eating (i.e really noticing the taste, smell, texture etc. of the food and savor the pleasure of it)
7/ Call a friend and let them know I’m feeling triggered…
8/ Leave (She wanted to give herself this option as a last resort)
There is space for 2 more! Can you think of something that would work for you when triggered to comfort eat?
The Top 10 Soother List is personal to each individual. It can include ways to talk to oneself in a comforting, reassuring way, much like a loving adult would talk to a frightened child. It is about activating the brain to respond differently in a perceived stress inducing environment. It does this by bringing in as many of the senses as possible (taste, sight, smell, touch etc.) to ground the body and calm the nervous system. Connecting with a trusted friend or loved one can also provide that same calming effect.
In Mary’s case the next time she was at an unfamiliar venue with people she didn’t know she tried #7. She found that having a friend to talk her down while at a party filled with strangers, really helped. She was able to feel less anxious and more grounded in her body. She actually ended up meeting some really interesting people and to her surprise enjoyed herself!
The Third Step: Practice! Practice! Practice!
Now the trick is to implement the wonderful list you have created for yourself. I advise making a copy that is small enough to carry around with you in your wallet or purse. Some of my clients copy it onto their cell phones. Wherever it is you want it ready and accessible at a moment’s notice.
In order for change to happen you need to practice implementing these 3 steps over and over. It takes lots of repetition to start to change how we are wired to react.
In the beginning just noticing the signs your body gives you that you are anxious is a big step in the right direction. The first time you remember to access your ‘Top 10 Soother List’, instead of reacting in the same old way, is also a big step. Give yourself lots of positive encouragement as you venture on this new road of literally rewiring how you react to anxiety and remember practice, practice, practice!