The Magical Connection Between Feelings and Food

I hear from my clients time and time again how affected they are by the link between feelings and food. Like any maladaptive coping mechanism, disordered eating of any kind, be it binge eating, purging, restricting, or just mindlessly overeating past the point of fullness, is a way to manage feelings that are difficult. Feelings that we don't want to deal with, that are hard to take. Feelings that are scary, and make us feel out of control.  Like sadness, grief, pain, anger.

When we engage in these eating behaviours, it is never (ever) about the food. It is never about our weight. And so, it makes sense that labeling eating and weight as the problem leads us nowhere. The eating behaviour is meeting a deeper need. Healthy or not, it is serving a purpose, filling a hole that needs to be filled. Food can be soothing, distracting, numbing, a way to zone out, a way to dissociate from what we aren't able to process, or a way to feel in control. When everything else in our lives feels like it is spiraling, knowing that we are able to control what we put into our bodies can feel very safe. It can feel like the right thing to do.

The reasons why we do this make sense on so many levels. As humans wired for survival and connection with others, we crave safety and security. We resist change when it is accompanied by the threat of uncertainly and instability (which it almost always is). Our nervous systems desperately seek a way to re-establish equilibrium, and that is generally how our habits of using food to cope are born.  

When we try to rip away the security blanket that using food to cope provides - we are left with an emptiness, a raw vulnerability that can quickly become overpowering. The feelings that our eating actions help to tamp down or tune out or ignore altogether flood to the surface and threaten to take us down. It's no wonder that it is so hard to curb these behaviours and why we are so reluctant to do so when this is the unpleasant outcome we are left with. While it can feel like self-sabotage to continue to use food in ways that that seemingly harm us, these actions are a way to protect us from pain, from perceived harm.

I know first hand what this feels like. As an emotionally sensitive person, emotions hit me dizzyingly hard and fast. I used to binge eat to ease the intensity of my feelings or to just get away from them. I've stopped using this behaviour several years ago because I finally came to terms with the fact that, while it was serving a purpose, it was ultimately harming me more than helping me with the shame, guilt, emotional turmoil and depression that it created in me. I can say with 100% clarity and certainty that I am so much better off now that it is no longer part of my life.

However - the hard truth is, even years later, I am constantly left with the dilemma of how to process feelings that are hard to face.

This year has been filled with changes for me, some amazing and some very painful and difficult. Even the amazing ones that have enriched my life have brought doubt, uncertainty and stress with them, as all changes do. I've struggled to keep my balance at times and sometimes it all feels like too much.

I have been awake now for several hours, unable to shut off my mind that is spinning and ruminating, desperately trying to sort through and process the tangled thoughts and feelings that are being churned out. I am feeling angry right now, and without any legitimate place to direct it. I feel angry with how the actions of others have impacted me, causing me stress, sadness and grief - while at the same time knowing that I have no right to demand that they make decisions in their own lives taking into account how it affects me. I know that communicating my anger to the people that it's directed at is not fair, it will be hurtful and will make me feel worse. Yet this doesn't make the feelings go away. I predict that I will instead get annoyed or lash out at my kids and husband in a misguided attempt to let these feelings out, and this will also make me feel worse, hating that they often take the brunt of something that is misdirected onto them.

So - I am left with feeling angry. One thing I have learned about feelings is that, welcome or not, relevant or not, fair or not, they won't go away unless acknowledged. It's not fair to anyone that I feel angry, I don't want to feel it, but it's here anyway, and I am struggling with what to do with it.

Which is something that binge eating would have been incredibly helpful with at another point in time. But not anymore. I know now that eating at this moment won't help, and it will only mask the feelings temporarily - they'll soon come roaring back with a vengeance.

So instead, here I am, forced to tolerate it, forced to get creative with how I process it, hoping that writing about it will be a therapeutic channel instead. Hoping that expressing this will maybe resonate with someone else. Everyone has to deal with feelings that they don't like. It's part of our shared humanity, and knowing that the feelings of aloneness are false can make us feel safer and more connected to one another.

Which brings me back to food. When I think about food and what it represents, I always think of three things: nourishment, connection/engagement with others, and pleasure. Food keeps us alive, keeps us healthy and thriving and functional. It also allows us to be social, to gather, to converse with others, to celebrate. It provides pleasure through the physical senses - taste, smell, texture, touch, mouth-feel, satiation. It can be emotionally pleasurable as well, releasing neurochemicals that calm and soothe, creating feelings of joy and contentment.  

In our culture and society, we are obsessed with the nourishment aspect of food, at the expense of the connection and pleasure aspects. It would serve us well to take a cue from other cultures and realize that all three aspects are equally important and contribute to overall health and well-being. It is absolutely okay to use food in these capacities and it will enrich our lives to do so. If we focus only on the nutrition and use this as an excuse to isolate, to avoid social situations that involve eating foods that are less nutritious, we are robbed of other aspects of our well-being.

And of course, when we sacrifice foods that we love and that bring us pleasure in the name of "healthy eating" - we set ourselves up for deprivation-driven eating. Every time.

The trick I suppose, is to try to strike a balance that works for you, not expecting that what works well for someone else will fit your unique needs, personality and temperament. To have the courage and willingness to practice incorporating all three of these aspects of eating, to recognize when you are using food in a way that is harming you more than helping, and to accept the hard truth that an instantaneous strategy to dissolve tough feelings maybe doesn't exist at that moment. The feelings will be there, louder without the behaviour, and while it doesn't feel comfortable maybe it is necessary. Maybe this is a part of life that nobody is exempt from, and seeing this can help us through it.

After all, feelings aren't permanent - they are changing all the time. They will shift faster If we choose to validate them.