Emotional Stress is directly related to our use of food to cope. In fact, our level of emotional stress is an indicator of how much we will feel the need to restrict, binge or purge on any given day. Therefore, understanding the triggers of your emotional stress and what to do to decrease your overall emotional stress are two fundamentally important pieces in the process of recovery from any form of eating disorder.
Emotional stress occurs when we are in a situation that makes us feel unsafe in some way. Emotional stress will likely manifest in one of the following ways:
1. Anxiety (fear, resistance, desire to flee or avoid a person or situation).
2. Anger (irritation, annoyance, frustration, judgement, blame).
3. Sadness (feel teary and down, pain or heaviness in chest).
4. Depression (disinterest, fatigue, isolation, hopelessness).
The sense of a lack of safety that triggers emotional stress arises from a real or perceived threat to our physical, psychological, emotional and/or spiritual well-being. In other words, as long as we lack trust in our ability to keep ourselves safe with any one or in any particular situation we will experience emotional stress, which then, if unchecked, can trigger the use of food to cope.
The following are some examples of situations where we undermine our sense of safety and trust in our ability to keep ourselves safe:
· We have a relative who frequently makes comments about our weight but we don’t say anything because we don’t want to “make a scene” or hurt their feelings.
· We’re in a meeting at work and a colleague has just said something that we believe is untrue but we don’t call them on it because we don’t want them to be angry with us.
· We know we aren’t that interested in dating a certain someone but we agree to go out with them because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Notice the theme? It’s all about what others are going to think and feel. We’re so very concerned with what others think of us and feel about us that we’ll compromise ourselves time and time again just to avoid any possibility of judgement or rejection. We can’t possibly begin to feel safe in the world and to feel the sense of peace and happiness and trust in ourselves that we need in order to cease using food to cope if we’re going to keep putting what others think of us ahead of how we feel and what we need.
Where does that seemingly insatiable need for external approval come from?
It comes from the belief that we are not good enough as we are. Thus we desperately need everyone’s constant approval, regardless of what we have to do to get it, or we will feel the painful sting of the “not good enough” story.
One of the primary experiences in childhood/young adulthood that sets us up to believe that we are not good enough is Emotional Abuse. You’ve probably heard the term but you may not truly understand what it is and how it impacts you – specifically how it is the most significant contributor to your lack of trust and safety in yourself and in the world around you.
Emotional Abuse occurs when someone manipulates our feelings intentionally. As adults, we are ultimately responsible for what we choose to respond to and for how we choose to respond. As children, we look to the adults around us to model healthy and appropriate behaviour. We look to those same adults to demonstrate, through their caring and treatment of us, our worth or value in the world. If our role models were unable to ask directly for what they needed while respecting our boundaries, should we say no to their request, it follows that we would mature into adults who feel unable to ask for our needs to be met. Given this scenario, we would naturally have a limited concept of what boundaries are and why they are necessary for healthy and respectful interpersonal relationships.The use of guilt, manipulation, threats and the withdrawal of love and affection are all examples of emotional abuse.
Emotional Neglect occurs when our most basic need for love and acceptance isn’t met. As children we all have a need for love and acceptance. It is natural, and it is our right as human beings to have that need met effectively, and consistently. When we do not receive consistent love and acceptance, we tend, as children, to try to make sense out of the pain and suffering we feel by imagining that we are somehow to blame. Somehow, we are not good enough, not loveable enough, and so we don’t deserve love and affection. That is what we tell ourselves to make sense of the lack of healthy emotional connection in our lives. This is a common circumstance and it is a very harmful one. It sets the stage for the internalization of many critical messages that continue to play in our heads long after we have left our family of origin. The Impact
A study in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, 2002, identified emotional abuse and / or emotional neglect as the experience in childhood most likely to lead to an eating disorder or sub-clinical disordered eating. The experience of emotional abuse or neglect forces us to find ways to cope with the pain of our unmet need for love and belongingness. It is just too painful for us to be conscious of our need for love and not have any effective way of getting that need met. As children or young adults, the best coping strategy that we can think of is to distance ourselves from our feelings and from any awareness that we have emotional needs at all. This is a state of being called “Alexithymia”. It means a lack of connection to and awareness of our feelings and it is the mediating factor between childhood emotional abuse or neglect and the onset of disordered eating.
The answer to overcoming the use of food to cope or other substance abuse concerns is not to ignore your feelings. The answer is not found in berating yourself for having feelings or for not being stronger and more able to cope with the traumatic events of your life. That approach only serves to continue the abuse and neglect from within. It perpetuates the harm that was done to you when you are now an adult and able to have a life that is free from abuse and safe from harm.The answer is found in taking the time to build trust in yourself, and in others, so that you can create the space for the compassion and love that you never had. It is possible and so very rewarding for you to meet your own need for love and compassion. Doing so does not mean that you won’t get that need met outside of yourself – in fact it truly creates a far greater likelihood of getting the need for love and acceptance met in all areas of your life.
Imagine what that would feel like! To truly trust yourself to respect your feelings and needs in any situation with anyone creates such peace and joy within and such loving respectful relationships with others that the use of food to cope just falls away. It becomes incongruent with who you really are and you just let it go. No fear, no pressure, no pain, just freedom.
If you think that emotional stress may be triggering you to use food to cope let us support you to heal this piece of your life. You deserve to have a life that is free from harm.