Friday, April 4, 2014

How to stop using food, eating, or not eating to cope with your emotions

It is possible to stop using food to cope with your emotions.  But before I talk about how to do that, I want to first lay some groundwork.

Food is nourishing in more ways than just physical.  Food can be intellectually nourishing, spiritually nourishing, and emotionally nourishing.

We can’t forget that eating is, or can be, an emotional experience.  It can be nostalgic in the way that you remember your childhood when eating certain foods.  It can be comforting when you have a nice, hot bowl of soup on a cold, blustery day.  It can be fun and happy when you’re at the movies with popcorn and jujy-fruits.

It is impossible to completely separate your emotions from food.  If you try to do so, you will only end up grumpy, cynical, and, to speak plainly, no fun to be around.

If you find that you are constantly turning to food (or restricting your food intake) in order to cope with every strong emotion, you might want to reexamine your relationship with food.

The goal should be to have an appropriate relationship with food.  Eating has an important place in life, and it is not just to keep you alive.  However, if you find that you have an inordinate view of food, if it’s taking up too much space in your life, or if it doesn’t have enough space, then you could benefit from these tips below.

Become self-aware.  The first step in all types of healing is to become aware of your habits, inclinations, and reactions.  It could be helpful to keep a diary for a few weeks while you are trying to evaluate your eating habits.  First, write down your emotions, what’s going on in your life, how you feel, etc.  Then write down what you did, or are going to do, to help you deal with those emotions.  Look back on the week and see if you notice any patterns.

Educate yourself of what an eating disorder is.  You may find some concerning behaviors while you are doing your self-examination.  If you can see correlations to anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, then you should seek professional help, or at least counseling.

If you don’t think you have an eating disorder, or you are not yet ready to get professional help, then acknowledge how you are treating yourself.  Be honest with yourself and your habits.  Get rid of the denial.  Look your faults in the face and bring them into the light.  You will see that they are not as scary as they were when they were lurking in the shadows.

Get rid of the rules.  You might have been living by a certain set of rules or expectations that you’ve imposed on yourself.  Think about these rules and evaluate whether or not they should stick around.  Things like, “Carbs are bad. I have to eat dessert last. A Pop-tart is not a good breakfast. I’m a bad person if I eat sugar. I can only eat 11 chips because that’s what the box says.”  Most people who struggle to have a good relationship with food also struggle to keep up with the regulations they’ve put on themselves.  It only promotes a vicious cycle.  If you can’t keep up with your ridiculous rules, you feel like a failure.  That strong emotion can trigger one to continue to turn toward food to help them feel better.

Give yourself permission to have a healthy relationship with food.  Give yourself permission to eat when you are hungry and to stop when you are full.  Allow yourself the option to leave food on your plate, throw it away, or save it in the fridge for later.  Or allow yourself to eat a little more because it was really good or because you’re not quite full, no matter what the serving size says.  Allow yourself to eat today with the knowledge that you are allowed to eat tomorrow too.  And most importantly, give yourself permission to feel.  It is OK to have emotions.  It is OK to cry, feel mad, feel hurt, or feel happy.  You are allowed to have ups and downs – it doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Listen to your needs.  Once you recognize that you are using food to cope with your emotions, pay attention to the emotions you are experiencing.  If you are sad, try to understand what made you sad and figure out what could possibly help.  For example, if you are angry with a friend after an argument, don’t react right away, allow yourself to experience that emotion for a short time.  Then, think of ways to help you cope with the emotion.  Maybe taking a walk to think of how to resolve it or calling her to say what you’re feeling.  If you use eating, or not eating, to deal with all your emotions, you are neglecting your true needs.  If you take time to think about your real needs, you will make better choices.  And if you take care of your needs, you will be less likely to compensate with food.

Take care of yourself without guilt.  Seriously and honestly, take care of yourself.  After you figure out your needs, give yourself permission to follow through.  Remember, you cannot give what you don’t have.  You will be a better person if you take care of your needs first.  It is not selfish, self-centered, or un-saintly to take care of yourself.  Remember that post about being a reservoir?  Of course there will be times that you can’t.  It’s not a perfect world.  But, if you make taking care of yourself a priority, you will notice a huge change for the better.

Employ other effective coping skills.  When I was first trying to figure out my needs, the coping skill I used the most was talking.  I needed to talk a lot.  I had a lot of counseling sessions.  I spoke with my husband about anything and everything that was bothering me.  I told him about all my food problems, anxiety, depression, and social insecurities.  Over time, I could trust him to help me and keep me accountable.  I also began to talk to other friends and family members.  Even if I didn’t solve anything, the human interaction brought me out of my own little pity party.  If I couldn’t talk to anyone, I would write a blog post.  I figured out that what I really needed what to express myself instead of keeping things all bottled up inside.  Besides the depression and the eating disorder, I also realized that I had a lot of anxiety, so I needed to address that as well.  Sometimes, I would use relaxation techniques or audio mediation clips to help me calm down, especially at night.  Everyone is different.  Figure out what you really need and find something that helps you.  And remember, it will take practice – a lot of practice and patience.

Post reminders where you can see them.  The positive reinforcement can help you get through the tough times, especially if you are home alone.  Carry encouraging quotes in your pocket or purse.  Put up your favorite lines on the refrigerator.  “You are worth it. Feelings are not facts. You don’t have to earn the right to eat. You are beautiful. You are loved. It’s OK to take care of yourself. You are not just your body – you are also mind, spirit, and soul. No one has power over you. You are strong. You are more than what you believe about yourself.”

Be compassionate with yourself.  Talk to yourself positively.  Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes.  Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend.  Remember, you are human and you are not perfect.  Yet, despite it all, God still loves you and wants you to be happy.  It might take a long time to change some habits, but it’s worth it, it’s possible, and you deserve it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Getting to the root of the matter; it’s all about food and never about food

When I find myself incessantly worrying about my weight or trying to restrict what I eat, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on in my life.

Sometimes, a slip back into eating disorder behaviors is strictly the result of addition.  Addictions are very powerful.  When you have a major addiction, you have very little control over whether or not you choose it.  Depending on where you are in recovery, you may have no control over your addiction whatsoever.  The very nature of an addiction is that it has the control over you.

These days, however, I’ve made a lot of progress overcoming my eating disorder.  For me, a minor relapse probably means there is something else bothering me, messing up my balance, throwing me off-kilter.  If I am struggling more than usual to stay on the straight and narrow, it’s not because I’ve been lax in my commitment to recovery.  It’s because there is probably a root cause at the bottom of all the rubble.

So, when I am tempted to give in to my addictions, I stop and think about the “why”.  Instead of getting down on myself about being a failure, I need to be more compassionate and figure out what changed.

I realize now that I use my eating disorder to help me cope with difficult emotions, situations, or environments.  In the past, I’ve beat my head against a wall, trying and trying and trying to stop my eating disorder behaviors.  Instead of trying harder to defeat the disorder, I’ve learned to try to face whatever is really, truly causing me to turn toward it.  Then, as a result, the unhealthy behaviors subside.

It’s like trying to weed your garden.  You could cut off the weeds at ground level leaving your soil looking good for a day.  Yet, day after day, you would grow weary from the constant battle with those persistent fellows.  You might even give up, thinking that it is hopeless and that there will always be weeds.  It might not be as obvious to you as it is to others that the weeds will continue to grow back unless you pull them out, roots and all.  This job might require better tools, weed killer, and possibly even professional help, depending on how bad your weed infestation is.

Trying to fix my eating habits is a very good short term fix, and might even help create good habits in the long run.  Yet, if I want to get to the root of the problem, I’ve got to look deeper.  Eating disorder behaviors are symptoms; they are the surface manifestations of a bigger problem underneath.

Possible underlying sources of tension could be: having your feelings hurt, experiencing loneliness or fear, feeling like a failure, having low self-worth, being taken advantage of, feeling rejected, finding yourself in a chaotic place, having a long to-do list, facing financial stress, not being able to say no, receiving blunt criticism, being misunderstood, or feeling like a burden.  Or it could even be from physical problems like having a stomach ache, headache, having a cold or the flu, or not sleeping well.

Once I take a step back and remember it’s not about the food, I can better deal with the real problem at hand.  Usually, if I think about it for a few minutes, I can pinpoint the issue.  Sometimes, talking to someone else can help me realize what is going on – the bigger problem is usually the thing that makes me cry or gets my blood boiling.

After the issues have been identified, if I need some coping skills to help me deal, I can proactively choose healthier ways to handle it.

It’s all about getting to the root of the matter.

Here’s to a weed-free garden this summer!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The irony of being controlled while trying to be in control

I know I’ve written on this topic before, but I recently had an “aha” moment that cause me to revisit the experience.

When I had an eating disorder, I wasn’t free.  I was bound to the shackles and chains of counting calories.  Everything that passed my lips not only had to be counted but also accounted for.

I thought I was free.  I thought that I was in control; my biggest fear was being out-of-control when it came to food and weight.

The irony was that I wasn’t in control – even when I was controlling everything little thing I ate down to a stick of gum, an Ibuprofen, or even licking an envelope shut.

My mind was constantly preoccupied with food, exercise, how many calories does this have, how many miles will I have to run after I eat this, how many pounds will I gain if I don’t…

I could never live in the moment.  I could never fully let go of the control of food in order to be present in whatever situation I found myself.

Parties were the worst – I was so afraid of the food that surrounded me.  I could not fully participate in conversations because I was either trying to figure out if I could manage a cookie or I was beating myself up for eating some buffalo chicken dip.  Then for days or weeks after, I tried to exercise away all of my eating “sins”.

My big turning point in this regard was after I ran a marathon.  The day of the big event came and I was still counting calories.  After the race, my husband and I had a celebratory dinner at our favorite restaurant.  Still, even after vigorously training for and then running a marathon, I had to tally up what I was eating.  I realized then and there that I had a problem.  It would never end.  If I was still obsessed with calories after I ran a freaking marathon, then I would never be able to stop.

I realized then and there that I was not in control.  My obsession with food, calories, exercise, and weight was in control of me.

After that day I decided to stop counting calories and stop “making up for” what I ate through exercise.  If I am to exercise, then I will do it because it feels good and makes me feel good after – not because I “need” to in order to negate the food I consumed.

Because I had been counting calories for about 10 years, the practice was a deep-rooted bad habit.  Its roots had spread over my whole being infiltrating every aspect of my life.  Stopping this routine was very difficult, to say the least.

It’s a lot harder to “unlearn” than to learn.  It’s not easy to just forget how many calories are in a banana, a granola bar, or a glass of milk…containers, boxes, and labels don’t help the situation either.

But since I realized that I had a problem, I had to be committed to giving it up.  So, I don’t look at nutrition labels anymore.  If I try to tally up calories in my head, I literally make noise, “la la la la la”, until it passes or until I’m distracted by something else.

The critical moment comes when I try to count how much I’ve had to eat in one day.  I’ve been known to hold my head with my eyes tightly squeezed shut saying “no no no no no”.  I have to remind myself that I don’t want to be controlled by this evil eating disorder anymore.

I have to remind myself that I want to live life – I don’t want to be on my death bed counting the calories in my ensure shake or the liquid in my IV.

So, with a lot of grace from God and continual practice I can say that I no longer count calories.

Most days I don’t even remember what I ate anymore, and for me, that’s a huge turn around.  It took about a year to get the information out of my brain.  Occasionally, calories will pop in my head but I dismiss them and move on.

The other day, I was at my parent’s house and almost everyone was home (which is a big deal nowadays).  Of course there was plenty of food around.  Only a few years ago, this would have caused me so much anguish, so much anxiety.  But, during our gathering, I didn’t think anything of it.  I actually didn’t even eat any of the snacks because I was full from a delicious dinner earlier that evening.  And I never thought twice about it.  (Well, until the next day when I marveled at how different the experience was for me compared to what it would have been in the past.)

It was an “aha” moment when I realized later how great it was.  I laughed, I was fully present in conversation and company, I was relaxed, and, most of all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Had I not changed, had I not given up the control, I would have been miserable.  I would have been distraught from being surrounded by food.  I probably would have been hungry because I was afraid to eat or I would have been mentally defeated because I did eat.  I would not have been able to enjoy myself because I was a slave to my eating disorder.

I am still working on keeping a positive body image.  I can’t say that I don’t still struggle with low self-worth.  But I have to remind myself that I don’t want to go back to the way I was, being controlled by the eating disorder.

When I am tempted to start controlling what I eat I have to remind myself that I would not be in control, but I could be controlled by an evil that I no longer have room for in my life.

I also have to remind myself how awesome it is not to be obsessed with food and what I did or didn’t eat.  I eat when I’m hungry, I eat what I am hungry for, and I don’t eat if I’m not hungry.

In the past, when the eating disorder was ruling my life, I thought that I if I didn’t control my food, then I would be out of control, like an animal, and not able to stop eating.  But it’s not like that at all.

I guess the point of this post is to let you know that it is WONDERFUL on the other side!  (I rarely use exclamation marks an all caps in my posts, so this sentence should stick out.)  I have a much better relationship with food now that I’ve stopped trying to control it.  I’m not saying it’s perfect – it never will be.  But, it’s a heck of a lot better now.  If you are teetering on the fence, make the leap of faith – it’s worth it!

If you are struggling with letting go of controlling what you eat and need some more information, try implementing some intuitive eating techniques.  Click here, here, or here to learn more about this practice.  Or read these other articles from other bloggers.

Why diets don’t work
Mindful eating: What it is and isn’t and why kids don’t need it