Lessons Learned From Irene: Stress Eating

August 31, 2011

The other day, mid tropical storm or hurricane backlash or whatever it was that demolished my yard, I found myself overcome with the strangest feeling. The feeling was this: There is not enough food in all the world to fill me. We are going to be without food for days. I need to stockpile as much food as possible. It was as though my hand-to-mouth mechanism was caught and skipping, so that my hand rose to my mouth, again and again, devouring whatever was in sight.

At one point, C turned to me and said, “What are you eating?” And I wasn’t even aware that I had picked up a tomato and was consuming it quietly in little bites.

The point was, I was scared and I was reminded of the the feeling that I had when I was a little girl: there will be no more food, we have to eat everything as quickly as possible, just in case. This was a feeling that I have toyed with mentally over the past couple of years, but there was something about the storm experience that hurdled me back into feeling this way instinctually, deep inside my skin.

On the surface, I was calm and good in an emergency.  Inside my body, fear was being processed rapidly, and all I could think about was what to eat next.

This is how I spent many years of my life.

It is interesting how something huge (or not so huge) can happen, and all of the sudden you are ricocheting back to your primary responses. I always describe this to people in this way:

Say you have a couple of mind-files. The first one is the one that you’re born with, and it is chock full of your basic responses to any situation, as you responded from birth. The groves from your brain to this mind-file are very deep and well worn with experience and expectation. Then you grow up and you realize that you don’t want to feel/respond/speak that way anymore, so you create yourself a brand spankin’ new mind-file, filled up with loving responses and positive thoughts. You spend 90% of your time in this new file, after practice, and you relish in the way it feels to have just up and changed your mind. It’s amazing! However, it takes many many years for this new mind-file to come to you in an instant, without thought or planning.  Sometimes when you find yourself in the middle of a stressful moment, your brain forgets about this new file entirely.  Instead, it moves as if without sight, down the tried-and-true tracks to your old, primary set of responses.

It is interesting, because sometimes no matter how much we work on a given issue – it can represent itself when we least expect it. I found that during the course of this day and the stressful events that followed – I wasn’t angry at my body for wanting to compulsively eatInstead, I took the natural inclination to shove food in my mouth faster than humanly possible as a loud reminder from my body that I needed to really take care of myself that day, because clearly I was having a very strong emotional response to what was happening.

Instead of caving to the desire to eat, I carefully corralled my anxiety and turned towards some self-care strategies. I planned, and cooked a delicious dinner – instead of shoving my hand into bags and eating whatever was lying on the counter in front of me. I talked about how I was eating. I gave it a name. I removed any traces of shame that I was holding on to about the experience, by describing it to those around me and asking for help:

I’m feeling very anxious and like I want to compulsively eat. Can we maybe watch a movie/stretch/do anything that will take my mind off of it?