Our resident psychologist Allison Keating answers your queries about life and relationships
Q: I am an emotional eater. I have had a lot of stress in my life over the past five years. I have had a miscarriage, a stillbirth and several rounds of IVF. I have finally got the baby I yearned for, but I cannot stop binge eating in the evenings. I am so cross with myself for being so weak. I gave myself a break when I was going through the IVF, but I really feel disgusting and weak now that I can’t stop when everything is ok again. Have you any advice?
A: Yes, I do, please be kind to yourself. I’m trying to imagine what the last five years have been like for you. The only person who knows how emotionally and physically devastating it has been for you, is you. It sounds like, it has been relentless. I’m really sorry to hear how immensely difficult it has been. Bringing it back to the very beginning, to when you were just born. Think of the first comfort you received in terms of connection and nourishment and guess what, it was food. As soon as you were born your mouth was put to work, well maybe you cried first, but then you ate. You are right, eating is emotional.
People may not agree with me, but I know you can stop smoking easier than to stop negative or unhealthy eating behaviours, habits or patterns. For the simple reason that when you stop smoking, that’s it, no more cigarettes and you are then, a ‘non-smoker’.
However, you cannot stop eating, to stay alive you need to eat.
Taking what you’ve said into consideration: ‘I’m an emotional eater’, can you see how our relationship with food is full of emotions from the joy and fun of a party right back to sadness of loss or hurt.
It’s when shame enters, that eating and your relationship with it, turns dysfunctional.
What are you really hungry for? The food temporarily numbs out your emotions, we numb to stop the pain. The evening time may be the first time in the day where you get a chance to have a thought. You have been thinking during the day, but perhaps about others. It’s when the house is quiet that the noise or that urge to binge enters in a run of compulsive thoughts; to eat, right now. That inner conflict and rational battle of ‘no, stop it this won’t help’ gets drowned out by the need to eat and eat fast.
Have you named your pain? Have you validated your experiences to yourself?
I kindly ask you to write down the answers to the following
⬤What comfort are you hungry for?
⬤Is it physiological hunger or
⬤What emotion are you trying to
⬤Will food satisfy your feelings?
Can you please write out the emotions you felt when you experienced the miscarriage, stillbirth and several rounds of IVF? Can you take each one separately and then take all the experiences together to see how they have impacted you. Name the emotions. I would imagine they are incredibly painful emotions. I understand why you would want to avoid them, push them down with food and numb them out. The more you do this though, the longer the hurt will continue. You have been through enough, it’s time to soothe the pain in a healthy, compassionate and helpful way.
What you can start to do is to create a healthy relationship with yourself and this in turn will help you cultivate a healthy relationship with food. Write a list of things that comfort you, keep this list in your psychological toolbox.
For example, taking a brisk walk, reading a book, talking with a friend or snuggling up on the couch.
What would it be like to sit with the strong compulsion to binge and to do something else that is pleasant and that you enjoy. Something that would break the feeling of guilt and shame and hiding your behaviour.
Sit down, with a lovely herbal tea and read or write out how you are feeling, even if that acknowledges how hard it is and that you feel out of control and all you really want to do right now is to binge.
Stop being disappointed in yourself and try to mind how hard this experience is for you. You are not disgusting, you are disgusted at your behaviour. In my experience it is when everything calms down that the brain is only able to deal with the trauma that occurred. You are so strong, but perhaps you were too strong for too long and your body needs to recover.
Be kind. Stop being harsh on yourself and start practising daily self-compassion being especially mindful of the words you use to describe yourself. You are a strong woman, who has been through so much, so be kind to yourself today and everyday.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org