Obesity is Not Mental Illness, It is a Symptom of Food Overeating
Hello, and welcome. It’s Michelle Morand here.
Last week I was a guest speaker on a talk radio station in Vancouver, BC, CKNW. It’s not my first time on the show. In fact I’m becoming something of a regular, which I find really fun and exciting. But that’s not the point of this article. The point is, one of the callers during the phone in portion of the show said something that I hear so very often I felt compelled to write about it. I was grateful for this man’s statement/question as it made for a wonderful and natural opportunity for me to educate the listeners on a key error in thinking that often keeps us stuck in harmful patterns. On the show I had 2 minutes to respond, so I had to keep it brief. On my blog though, I can expand and I will.
So, grab a cup of tea, curl up and read on.
The CKNW interview so far had been on the topic of using drugs to treat obesity – you may have caught the article in your local paper during the week of (September 11 – 13th, 2007). I made a comment which caused quite a stir among listeners and garnered some strong reactions. My comment was this:
“Obesity is not a mental illness. For most people* it is a symptom of the use of food to cope by overeating, otherwise known as Binge Eating Disorder, which, is already classified as a mental illness. Using drugs to treat a symptom will only leave those who take them dependent on the drugs and not looking beneath their symptoms to the true cause of their use of food to cope. Therefore, the individual never gets to heal and trust that they can live life without medication. This is similar for many people with depression and anxiety who are depressed and anxious for very good reasons, past and/or present who are given medication to dull their awareness of their body’s natural signals of stress or dissatisfaction. Those individuals aren’t healing, they’re just coping.”
The announcer, John, then asked me what those folks were coping with. I responded by saying that most people who use food to cope, or who struggle with depression or anxiety are doing so in an attempt to cope with the trauma of having unmet needs for security and for love/acceptance as children or young adults.
Well…, that was pretty close to what I said and I got a few calls from people who felt that I was saying that medication should never be taken and who clearly felt very strongly to the contrary. That wasn’t difficult to attend to, since I don’t believe that medication should never be used and I hadn’t said that I simply clarified that I do support the use of anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medications in acute circumstances (ie. panic attacks, suicidal ideation etc.) given that the individual is using the medication to take the intensity from the emotions while they are actively engaged in therapy to attend to the true cause of the problem. And given that medication is seen for most people as a temporary measure and not a solution in and of itself. That seemed to help clarify and those callers went away satisfied.
Then, the big piece! A man called to say that he had an issue with my statement that overeating, depression and anxiety stem from trauma/unmet needs from childhood or young adulthood. The host, John, asked him, did you ever experience trauma or a lack of security or love as a child? The caller responded “sure, I did, and I struggled with depression later on, but everyone goes through those kinds of things.”
I became immediately aware that he had just made a key statement and that I had 2 minutes to respond effectively and educate the listeners on a key misunderstanding that leads to much grief and self-harm. Needless to say I said something general in response that invited him to challenge his assumption without opening a can of worms in the process – very unsatisfying to me but that’s radio!
His argument essentially was that since most people experience some unmet needs for security and/or love, acceptance and belongingness as children or young adults it is therefore not trauma and not the reason that people become depressed or anxious or turn to food to cope.
The most obvious response to that statement, which, I chose not to offer on the radio with only two minutes to respond, is to pose the following argument: In Iraq for example (insert any region in any time period that has experienced war/ or military dictatorship) millions of people have been forced to leave their homes, guns firing around them, bombs dropping intermittently, their basic human rights taken away, members of their families killed, lost, whereabouts unknown, future uncertain, no personal power…I could go on but you get the picture. Now if this caller’s argument holds water we would say that because everyone in those regions has experienced, or is experiencing, those circumstances, ie. because they were “normal”, they weren’t traumatizing? You tell me?
Now, let’s say that someone from Iraq moved to Canada recently and was sharing with you, over coffee, that they felt quite anxious and depressed and found themselves eating when they weren’t hungry. Would you think that person was weak? Would you judge them as having no willpower? Or might you suggest that because they had just come from a very stressful situation in which they didn’t feel safe they would naturally feel quite anxious and overwhelmed and that as they came to feel safer and more secure in their new environment they would likely feel less anxious, depressed and compelled to use food to cope? Consider that for a moment.
I was at a workshop yesterday and the facilitator spoke of a cartoon that I had seen a few years back in a psychological journal. It was a picture of a large auditorium, rows of empty chairs but for two people. A banner reads “convention for people from non-dysfunctional families” and one of the two folks is saying to the other “I think I’m in denial!” Quite funny – and quite true.
Most of us experienced some fundamental unmet needs for safety and security and/or love, acceptance and belongingness as children. That’s true. What is not true is the assumption that those events do not impact us today.
Of course they do.
Not feeling safe; not feeling loved or accepted is very painful and prevents us from feeling solid and secure in the world on the whole and in relationships with others. This then prevents us from developing our hearts and minds fully as we become so desperate for external safety and approval that we stifle and compromise our authentic thoughts and feelings and desires and instead try to create the least disturbance, draw the least attention and struggle to feel safe and secure for just a moment.
Now, if only we were aware that we were stuck because of the pain of past unmet needs we could actually attend to those unmet needs in the present and step into ourselves as the confident, secure, beautiful beings that we are capable of being. But, for the most part, our society has the following story attached to it:
- That because those things happen to everyone they didn’t really hurt you.
- No one else has a problem dealing with them.
- Therefore, if you have a hard time coping with or getting over those events you are too weak and too sensitive and you should just get over it.
This is a story of denial. It’s a bunch of pahooey! As we saw in the example of the war torn region – just because many people experience unmet needs for security or for love and acceptance as young people doesn’t mean that those experiences don’t have an impact.
And rather than helping you heal and step beyond those past experiences, telling yourself that the past didn’t impact you or doesn’t impact your thoughts and behaviours today only keeps you stuck blaming yourself for feeling anxious and depressed and for using food, alcohol, drugs etc. to cope.
The definition of a coping strategy is: Any thought, feeling or behaviour that allows you to remain in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable you are.
Based on that definition it becomes obvious that the solution to healing any coping pattern (such as depression; all or nothing thinking; disordered eating or alcoholism to name just a few common ones) is not to focus on the coping pattern itself but on the underlying situation that triggered the need for the coping strategy in the first place.
If you focus on the coping strategy itself you’ll only spin your wheels on the surface and never achieve and lasting healing. That’s why, for people who use food to cope, no diet will ever bring lasting success.
The only real and lasting solution is to establish a strong foundation of respect and security within yourself, in the present. This may seem like a tall order, or perhaps, if you’re still buying into that old message of judgement and shame that society dishes out, you’re starting to scoff at the notion that any value can come from feeling safe in, and accepting of, yourself. But truly it’s not as difficult a prospect as it may seem. In order to establish that strong inner core and really know that you can trust yourself to meet your own needs for security and acceptance you must first begin to understand how you came to be as you are. That understanding is what we call empathy and only through self-empathy and compassion can you step free of the harmful coping strategies you’ve erected to barricade yourself from harm – past, present and future.
Perhaps you’re tea is cold and you need a refill – take a break – and, when you can, come back and read on as we get to greater clarity and most significantly, a solution.
Now, let’s back up the bus a little bit and look at your past. But first, I challenge you to notice if, as you read on, you hear a voice that says anything like: my experience wasn’t as bad as some people; so and so had it worse; it doesn’t impact me anymore; I’m over that…..etc. Just notice. And if you spot any of those dismissing thoughts and you know that you currently use food, anxiety, depression, alcohol or other harmful coping strategies then you know, with absolute certainty that you have bought into that societal story of denial and it’s time to refresh your perspective.
Or perhaps you’re feeling some resistance and annoyance at my proposal that your parents or other caregivers in your young life didn’t meet your needs for love or security. You may be saying “I don’t want to get stuck in blame, they did the best they could. What happens in my life now is up to me and I don’t want to dump it on them.”
Well, I support you and congratulate you for wanting to take responsibility for where you are now and the choices you make/have made as an adult. It is important that you see yourself as the person in charge of your life at this time.
It is also important for you to allow your primary caregivers or anyone who undermined (consciously or unconsciously) your basic needs for safety and love to be allowed to take responsibility for their choices at that time. Nothing is gained by blaming others and wallowing in the harm that was done to you. And in the same fashion, nothing is gained by pretending that your needs were met by key people in your life if they weren’t.
You see, both can exist: You can take responsibility for the choices you make in life now while also allowing your primary caregivers to be responsible for the choices they made as your parents/teachers/etc.
In fact, from this stance of seeing yourself as a responsible adult and seeing them as also having been responsible as adults in your life, you are in a much stronger, more balanced place from which to heal yourself and your relationships and to move through any past harm.
Allow yourself to imagine that when you were born you came into the world with peace at your core. The very centre of your being was peaceful and felt immense trust and faith in the world and in the people in it.
Had your basic human needs been consistently met from infancy onward you would have maintained conscious contact with that sense of peace and tranquility and you would now move through life from a place of balance and security, trusting that all is as it should be and that overall the world is a beautiful and safe place to be.
Now, allow yourself to imagine that for each experience as a child of your basic needs for food, security/safety, or love/acceptance and belongingness not being met you felt pain. In those situations you felt an appropriate and healthy response of sadness, fear or anger. In response to these healthy, but painful responses to your needs not being met, you began to erect a barricade around your peaceful, trusting core. You began to wall away and protect your authentic self from those painful experiences of insecurity and rejection.
Therefore, instead of experiencing life from your natural state of feeling balanced and centred and peaceful, you began to respond to life from a more defensive stance of anxiety and agitation, feeling unsettled and ungrounded. This is what is otherwise known as the “flight or fight” response. And, if you use food to cope or anxiety or depression among other common harmful coping strategies you can guarantee that you are still approaching life from this flight or fight place – on guard constantly and ready to fight or flee as the situation demands.
In essence you can picture yourself as a whirling tornado, spinning through life; frantic to find your lost sense of peace and acceptance, at all costs. You are perpetually looking outside of yourself for a sense of peace, acceptance and security which cannot be found anywhere but within.
Now, it would be bad enough if this pattern of being harmed and walling more and more of your authentic self away stopped when you reached adulthood and became responsible for yourself. But the reality is, because you have become so accustomed to feeling anxious and agitated, and to interacting with others in a certain way, you continued, in a manner of speaking, to do the same thing to yourself that was done to you: To engage in circumstances where you do not feel safe or loved and respected.
The “solution”? First and foremost you must learn to become aware of when you feel that your needs for security or love and acceptance are not being met by learning to notice when you are using your harmful coping strategies to survive. Then you must learn how to take steps to protect yourself (if you truly are being threatened) or learn new tools for challenging your patterns of thought that lead you to feel threatened when no threat is really present. That’s where counselors like myself come in. We help you to understand what is really going on underneath your coping patterns and how to heal those old patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Just so you’ve got a sense of the kinds of things to be on the look out for when you’re asking yourself to keep an eye out for coping patterns here is a list of some harmful coping strategies that you could be using:
Behavioural Coping Strategies:
- Restriction (not eating when hungry)
- Drug Addiction
- Retail Therapy (shop to feel better rather than because you really need something)
- Relationship Addiction (can’t be without one and be happy)
- Co-dependency (believe you are responsible for the feelings and needs of others and/or that they are responsible for your needs and feelings)
Emotional Coping Strategies:
- Alexithymia (unable to identify what you are feeling, or that you are even having a feeling)
Thought Coping Strategies:
- All or Nothing Thinking
- Bad Body Thoughts
- Intrusive Ideation (worst case scenario thinking)
- Self- Blame
- Harmful Core Beliefs (I am not good enough, etc.)
- Paranoid Thinking
- Suicidal Ideation
This list is not complete but it’s a good solid start to get you going.
Some of you would have seen these patterns of thinking and behaving modeled for you by parents, grandparents, teachers etc. and either naturally took them on as “the right way to be” or rebelled against them only to find yourself with an equally harmful and overwhelming way of being in the world.
So, if you’d like to change any of these patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, start by inviting yourself to be more aware of when you’re doing them. Perhaps even ask people in your life that you feel safe with to gently point out those patterns when they see you using them to cope.
Your awareness of these coping strategies is the first and most important step in changing their strangle hold on your peace and happiness. But remember, awareness without compassion is just a set up for self-judgement and shame. That’s why understanding where your coping patterns came from, ie. why you needed to develop them in the first place, is so important because once you understand that piece you cannot help but have empathy and compassion for yourself.
Stay tuned for more guidance on what to do now that you’re tuned in to your coping strategies – but always remember – there is a reason for why you do what you do and I absolutely positively assure you it has nothing to do with willpower or your capacity to heal and grow.
You are a beautiful being. Regardless of what you may currently believe about yourself, I assure you, you deserve the same peace and happiness and freedom that everyone else does. You can create a life that is filled with passion and abundance. All you need to do is begin to allow for the possibility that things are not as they seem, that your perspective on the past needs a little tweaking and that you truly are worthy of all that you desire.
*I say for most people because there are some who would identify themselves as overweight but have become so due to hormonal imbalances (thyroid concerns) or through accidents which have left them temporarily or permanently unable to exercise and they have yet to find a new balance with their nutritional intake.