Ask Marzipan: The Food + Anxiety Cycle

January 14, 2010

Hi! I’m a reader of your blog, and I must say that I am absolutely in love with the site! (: Thank you for all of your support!

There is an issue of mine that has been occurring for the past 3-4 months, relative to my eating-habits. For the past two years, I’ve been going through many changes. I have been working on myself spiritually, mentally, and physically. Through these changes, I have been experiencing bursts of anxiety, and at those moments I tend to turn to food. In those moments, I feel like food is controlling me, and I have to try my hardest to escape. I have been trying in so many ways to improve my relationship with food, but it seems like nothing is effectively progressing. I understand that there are many parts of me that will take time to heal; However, I feel that there is another way my body and mind can ventilate its anxiety through this process, rather than over-consumption. This cycle is so exhausting, and I will do anything to heal it. Any advice or input would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for your time, and may god bless you!

Oy. If you didn’t hit the nail on the head sending this to me today. TODAY when I decided it was long enough after the holidays and my marathon-party-delicious-fest-perpetual-indulgence to go swim suit shopping. It wasn’t, I assure you, and I nearly had a heart attack in the process. So, yes. Food and Anxiety do certainly seem to make good partners in crime, and I assure you that you are not the only one who is having this problem, particularly in times of major transition or life change.

The comfort of food:

When I am anxious, I love warm things. I love pajamas and sweatshirts, and I love eating. I particularly love food that is: starchy, cheesy, mushy, delicious, bad for me health wise, and most of all, food that I can consume vast amounts of. I take comfort not in the food itself, but in the large quantity of it in front of me, in the promise of eating until I can feel absolutely nothing else other than warm and full.  I like to cook this food for myself, slowly and elaborately, and I like to cozy eat it while zoning out and watching television. I am quite sure that the type of eating I have just described falls directly into the compulsive eating category. I have found that the best way that I can tell when I am eating for emotional reasons is that the craving is more for the act of consuming than for the food itself or out of hunger. And this is also (unfortunately) the type of eating that eludes the feeling of being full.

The act of eating:

Sometimes on this blog, I talk about my broken hand-to-mouth mechanism, whereby I eat as though my hand is a lever on a pulley: bowl. scoop. mouth. repeat.  I’ll find myself in the mindless consumption of someone who is not eating to sustain oneself, but instead to fulfill some sort of dull ache or long term hurt.  This kind of consumption also resonates with a childhood feeling of often not having junk food in the house, and when some of this magical deliciousness would arrive the three sisters would BATTLE and stuff our cheeks in order to get our fill, just in case there wasn’t another opportunity.  As an adult, if I am feeling nervous, or tired, or hung-over, or (strangely – thus, the cycle of negative body image/compulsive eating) when I am feeling badly about myself.

The after-effect of eating:

The problem is that when you eat to find comfort from your anxiety, you are only exacerbating your negative relationship with it. Because, as they say, what goes up must come down, and in the same regard once the shiny warm delicious feeling of eating wears off you are left feeling likely more anxious, because now you have to worry about your body ON TOP of whatever you were anxious about to begin with. Also, often, whatever delicious food you were indulging in suddenly becomes the enemy, the terrible bad thing upon which you can now pin all of your negative feelings about yourself.

Learning to love food, and yourself better in the process:

  • Promise yourself that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, IF you are truly hungry for it. One of the BEST things about being an adult is that you get to feed yourself. Luckily this means that you can have chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, but chances are that when you make the switch in your brain allowing yourself to have whatever whenever, you will stand a better chance at becoming more in tune with the things that your body needs.
  • Get enough sleep. This often seems trivial to me, but I have noticed that when I am exhausted, stressed, or anxious due to overexertion, I make worse food choices than if I am getting regular and adequate rest.  The truth is that taking care of yourself (as you mentioned) is not only about your relationship with food, but rather with your spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, when you take care of yourself better holistically, your ability to tune into your body’s real nutritional needs vastly improves.
  • Have you been overindulging in caffeine or has it been a while since you drank some water?  It is unbelievably important to drink enough water. More often than I’d like to admit, I reach to munch on something when the reality is that I am craving water and I am REMARKABLY bad a remembering to drink enough of it. [I try my hardest to drink 32 ounces of it when I first wake up, thus getting a portion of it out of the way off the bat, also most people get really dehydrated while they are sleeping.]
  • Do things that are calming/take your mind off of eating. I do my majority of stress eating when I am relaxing in the evening or when I am watching television.  The thing with anxiety is that it is easy to ignore it while you’re busy throughout your day, but often creeps back in when you are sedentary. If you want food, but aren’t hungry, try keeping your hands busy some other way. I like to: hula hoop while I watch tv, knit [in theory – but it’s a good idea], draw, write, blog, idly search for things online, anything to keep my mind occupied when I just want to indulge in a random activity that will relax me, but doesn’t have me eating large amounts of useless food.
  • The be-all-end-all of compulsive eating advice: stop eating when you’re full. If this is hard, try to pay attention. If you fail, start again fresh with your next meal. Do not allow yourself to get further sucked into the marzipan black hole of compulsive eating, well I already did badly and I shouldn’t have eaten that, so today is already shot and I’ll just finish it out and start again tomorrow. I do not lie to you when I tell you that I lived that way, day to day, for the majority of my life. My best best best advice is: start fresh NOW. Start again NOW. Just because you made a mistake, and we all do, do not punish yourself, just start again fresh, refuse to collapse in guilt, and do just a little bit better on with your next meal.