Do you want to transform your relationship with food and eating?
Perhaps you recognise one of these statements?
"I've never had a healthy relationship with food"'
"I have been so controlled around food, but then something switches inside my head and I lose all my willpower".
"I've tried so many diets only to put all the weight back on when I come off it".
Changing patterns of a lifetime requires a multidimensional and holistic approach. In this blog I share my thoughts about how our past affects our present and how we can improve our relationship with food and eating.
Children feel everything
Before the age of 7, the human child lacks the mental cognition and reasoning (because the brain is still undeveloped), to intellectualise feelings. Intellectualising is a way for us to cope with feelings. But seeing as this is wholly unavailable to the child, they end up feeling everything inside their body - in such a way where they can feel that their very survival is threatened.
Just look at how a young child reacts to pain when they have fallen over and hurt themselves. They generally explode with pain! It sometimes seems to us that their reaction is really out of proportion to the injury itself (which is often a small scratch or grazed knee). But they are actually genuinely in agony because their brain isn't able to moderate it for them.
In any given day a child could feel indescribably hurt, sad, angry, scared or stressed, and without a therapeutic intervention from their parents or caregivers, they will reach out for something to soothe themselves. Often the parents or caregivers offer the child food as a way to comfort them - "Why don't we have a biscuit and make it all better", because they too lack the practical tools to work with their child's feelings in a conscious way.
The need to be comforted is a completely normal and necessary part of every child's survival.
Childhood messages and our bodies
We learn at a young age to cover up our feelings with food. Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs are quite rightly off-limits to kids; food is something that is generally freely available. Childhood is also often the time where we lose touch with our innate ability to know when we are hungry or full due to the messages and conditioning we received around the dinner table.
Adult overeaters sometimes have a fear of deprivation around food that arose when they were little. They may have heard messages such as "there are starving people in the world - you must be grateful and eat everything up!" Or perhaps the parents were born in the post-war generation where food was still rationed and they were conditioned to "finish your plate or else!" This can be the case when a client says to me that they feel compelled to finish everything on their plate, even when they know they are full up.
Food could also have been used as a rewarding system for trying to achieve 'good' behaviour, and messages such as "if you eat all your dinner then you can watch television" and "eat up - there's a good girl" are all very common.
Understanding our brain and 'trigger' foods
Comfort foods block the stress receptors in the brain for a short time period, requiring increased amounts to get the same reaction. So sugary, salty, highly processed and simple carbohydrate foods activate a reward system in our brains (in the same way cocaine and nicotine do), releasing dopamine - a biochemical opioid, making us feel happy. It is also highly addictive for biological and neurological reasons.
When we ingest these 'trigger' foods, our dopamine receptors in our brains actually switch off, meaning we require more and increased amounts of the food to get the same good feeling. But without any alternatives to soothe ourselves, we naturally will keep reinforcing this coping mechanism until it becomes an engrained habit and an involuntary reflex to uncomfortable feelings.
How do we heal our early conditioning?
It can be helpful to think of psychotherapy as a place to re-parent ourselves. One aspect of therapy is how it provides an opportunity to look at your own childhood and big life experiences to see how they have shaped your mindset and behaviours. There are often stored up emotions that need witnessing, processing and releasing in order to move on. You learn how to really tune in to your feelings, and become more conscious of them, using the basic principles of mindfulness. You can discover how to soothe yourself in a healthy and truly nourishing way, and learn new tools and techniques to support your whole system of mind/body/emotions and soul.
Comfort eating doesn't just disappear overnight. It takes commitment and a readiness, (and often a desperate determination) to want to change. But even women who have come to me feeling totally deflated and hopeless have recovered a healthy relationship with food and transformed their lives. Secretly picking at food becomes a thing of the past; they now feel confident in their relationship with their body and know what it needs and more importantly - how to stop. In the recovery journey, it is often the case of 2 steps forward and one step back. But slowly and surely, change takes hold: and life becomes what you choose it to be. Enjoying this Blog? Click here to go to the next part.
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