This article was inspired by some wonderful men and women who agreed to share their experiences hoping that it would help others through these difficult times not to feel ashamed or defeated. From comfort eating to disordered eating, from nails biting to hoarding or tidying and cleaning excessively, we are all in the same boat.
In our culture, food and drink can often be considered a reward, a ‘mood-boost’ or a comfort. If this is occasional, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However when food/drink becomes central, i.e. eating too much or restricting intake has become your ‘go to’ strategy to cope with stress, you can quite easily fall into a vicious circle.
Most of us have experienced an increase in stress and anxiety with the change in our daily routine, lockdown restrictions, financial uncertainty, and health concerns. Therefore, it is to be expected that your brain reaches for the coping strategies that it knows to work in a timely manner even if those strategies will only provide you with short term relief.
If food/ drinks have ever given you a sense of (quick) relief before, you will be more likely to open your refrigerator whenever you feel stressed, upset, lonely, tired or bored. Additionally, your brain might think you are in danger and therefore need energy to fight.
The challenges in the change
It is more difficult to change our coping strategies/ behaviours in times of distress.
When we are emotionally overwhelmed, the Amygdala (emotional centre of your brain) goes into overdrive and partly stops communicating with your ‘thinking brain’ (Prefrontal lobe). You are going on autopilot!
So you might not fully realise you have opened the cupboards until you are already halfway through the pack of biscuits.
“I don’t think I can stop myself and I just need to do it, carry on.... until I can think clearly again... and then I feel bad”
If your ‘thinking brain’ is disconnected when you are in crisis, your brain doesn’t really consider what is right or wrong to some extent. It just wants to bring the balance back (homeostasis) or prepare you to fight. It’s part of your survival instinct.
So by eating food/ drinking, your brain thinks it’s regaining control and protecting YOU. It’s only doing its job!
“Control over food is the only thing I have control of, I feel terror at the uncertainty of the future”
In times like today, can we blame it for trying to gain control over something when we feel so powerless?
“The only thing I have that is familiar to me is my eating disorder. Now what?”
This is true for comfort-eating/ drinking or any other ‘go-to’ coping strategies/ behaviours that you might have that provide you a (quick) sense of relief such as counting calories/ restricting, over-exercising, binge-watching, cleaning, hoarding, nails biting,
overuse of dating websites, overuse of internet in general, resuming unhealthy relationships, substance abuse, etc.
The vicious circle of self criticism
The issue is that if using the behaviours mentioned helps in the moment by providing a quick sense of relief, it often makes us feel worse in the long term.
“For me, the eating disordered thoughts and behaviours that have featured in my life from a young age provide some comfort, in spite of the damage they can cause. This makes it all the more difficult to fight against them.”
We might judge ourselves and feel guilty and ashamed. We might tell ourselves that we ‘failed’, we have ‘no will power’ or that we are ‘not good enough’. Our self-esteem and confidence get knocked down, which lead to more distress to cope with. What to do then? Eating more? Counting calories more? This is endless!
“Self-loathing is overwhelming if I should succumb”
By trying to regain control, we might feel more and more powerless over our behaviours and feelings. This can lead to some forms of addictive behaviours...
Positive changes are possible
No matter how powerless we feel over those behaviours and feelings, we can still make positive changes. We can get out of vicious circles and self-sabotaging behaviours by creating new pathways and exploring new less destructive ways of coping!
Thanks Neuroplasticity! We can form new neuronal connections throughout life and learn new behaviours.
If the problematic behaviours are in place to protect us and help us to cope with our negative feelings, we need to learn to manage those emotions before it gets out of control.
1. Learn what triggers your stress and anxiety - try to reduce your triggers when possible
“I’ve taken the hugely challenging step of muting / unfollowing some of the worst culprits. Although I initially felt guilty doing so, I have noticed a certain sense of peace in knowing that I can now scroll safely.”
2. Prepare yourself for the difficult times - if you know that this is a stressful situation for you, prepare yourself by implementing anxiety-relief practices (mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercising, avoid caffeine, etc) and look to build healthier coping strategies that you can reach easily through the stressful event.
“I practice my breathing...my grounding techniques...I try to distract myself...I visualise my safe place... ”
3. Stay connected - Try to check how you are feeling throughout the day. Have regular breaks. Practice deep breathing. Ask yourself how you are feeling. Practice self care.
“I’m mindful that to challenge myself any more than I currently am could be asking for trouble at this critical time.”
4. Be mindful of your negative thoughts- the self-critical voice can loop you back into any vicious circles you've formed.
“I’ve tried to cut myself some slack when things go a bit pear-shaped: draw a line under it and start afresh the next day.”
5. Be kind with yourself -Make sure that you treat yourself with care, compassion and gratitude. Accept yourself and forgive yourself for your mistakes.
Change is a journey...