Well, here’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart these days: stress and eating disorders. Not just because it is the underlying trigger every single time, no exceptions, for people’s disordered eating patterns, but because stress is up for me as well!
There was a time in my life when I was so incredibly removed from my own feelings and needs; a time when I had nothing but 24/7 negative self-chatter in my head; a time when I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day so I could be alone with food and binge as much as I wanted without anyone seeing me. Of course I’d see me! And of course, my Drill Sgt. within would verbally berate and shame me for eating as much as I did and for eating foods that I knew were not in alignment with my goals for health and a slim body.
That was a stressful time in my life. I thought my stress was because of how incredibly disgustingly gross I felt about my body and how incredibly out of control and weak and lame I felt because I couldn’t “control” myself around food.
What I didn’t know then was that I was doing just what I needed to do around food. I was soothing and nurturing myself at a time in my life when I felt terribly alone and completely overwhelmed.
I absolutely believe, because I’ve lived it and seen it in hundreds of clients, too, that if I had only been able, in those days, to give myself permission to nurture myself with food, it actually would have felt nurturing. It would have met my needs. I would have needed less food to achieve that goal. I would have felt an increase in self-esteem and a lessening of the death grip that food and my critical Drill Sgt. had on my life. Alas, at that time in my life, I didn’t know that key tidbit of information. Instead, I believed that I was weak and lazy and lacked willpower; that I didn’t care about myself enough; that I was dirty and disgusting and gross, and that I deserved to feel bad for what I had eaten (for having no control), and that I would always be fat and gross and lonely forever.
That was my truth then. It was a very dark, dark time.
- If only I understood then that I was behaving as I was with food because I needed to numb and soothe myself.
- If only I’d been able to know that and then ask myself what I needed to soothe myself from/for (separate from my judgements of my body and my shame around what I was eating).
- If only I’d been more in tune with my body and what I was feeling, I would have been able to immediately understand that there were other things in my life that were causing me distress and that I would very likely feel a lot less anxious and insecure (not that I knew I was feeling that way) and therefore, need food to cope a lot less.
- If only I’d had a clue that food was a coping strategy and not the problem!
- If only I’d been able to offer myself a little empathy, a little compassion, a little of the nurturing and warmth that was missing in my life, I’m sure I would have started to feel more worthy and whole and happy rather than depressed and fearful.
But you see, that’s the point. Eating disorders work as coping strategies because they are so invasive. They take over every aspect of your life and preoccupy your Drill Sgt., all-or-nothing thinking mind 24/7. They work like a hot damn actually if your goal is to be completely numb and unaware of the stress you’ve experienced in your past, the stress that exists in your present or the worries you have for yourself or others in the future. They’re actually quite effective in that regard.
You may recall from my article last week on the brain, the definition of a coping strategy:
Any thought, feeling, or behaviour (ie. thinking of food when you’re not hungry, judging your body, feeling “fat”, feeling depressed, eating when not hungry, restricting, purging) that allows you to remain in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable you are.
Now, that might not mean all that much to you right now because you’ll only be able to truly identify your anorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia or any of your disordered patterns around food as coping strategies when you are able to prove to yourself beyond a shadow of a doubt that you only ever do what you do with food now because you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed about something else in your life and this is how you handle stress – It’s all just smoke and mirrors; the all-powerful tactic of distraction.
I’ve written countless articles on why it is we come to feel the need for such a heavy duty coping strategy. One that may be of benefit to you if you’re not familiar with this is from last month and called “The Way We Were.” If you’re wanting to understand this concept more and give yourself the best chance to step free of your stressful relationship with food, I encourage you to read it if you haven’t yet done so.
So, back to me! Stress! Yes, right now, I’m needing to debrief my days with my husband more often than usual and debrief with myself using my tools (4-7-8 and the List of Stressors), not so much because all-or-nothing is running rampant but because there is so much going on and so much of it new, I’m naturally feeling a little anxious and needing to centre and ground myself regularly throughout the day. When I get clear about what I’m thinking or what is on my list of tasks and what needs my attention in order for me to feel peaceful, I experience moments of great peace in what I know would otherwise be a very stressful and triggering day. I experience a solid sense of trust and safety in myself in the midst of this newness and uncertainly in certain key areas of my life and that is the gift of this process. We can’t create a life that is stress free, but we absolutely, no exceptions, can create a life where we don’t get caught up in our stress and instead, let go immediately of unhelpful stories and identify immediately what, if any action, we need to take in order to feel peaceful in any situation.
We can learn to trust that we are worthy of having our needs met, that we are able to take care of our needs in ways that only increase our self-esteem, and that we, and no one else, are responsible for the quality of our life in all areas.
If you doubt the above statement, you are still living in an old all-or-nothing mind, you are still buying into the old co-dependent training that was handed down to you from your caregivers and to them by their caregivers and so on and so on back through time. You can create immense change in your life in just a few short months. This change will naturally flow to the key people in your life, providing an opportunity for them to see you and themselves differently. When you learn new tools to handle life and cease to agree to harm yourself, so others don’t have to experience the natural consequences of their behaviours, you are giving yourself a brand new life and you give anyone who knows you a chance to grow, too.
Stress is a part of life. Anxiety and eating disorders don’t have to be.