Are You Self Medicating Your Emotional Stress With Food?

Talking about someone “drowning their troubles” with alcohol has been around for ages, but the idea of feeding feelings instead of experiencing them, of using food to deaden stressed out, or uncomfortable emotions in much the same way as an alcoholic might use liquor is still gaining acceptance. 

Are our stressful, high-speed, and sometimes emotionally disconnected lifestyles creating a deregulation in our bodies, more particularly in our limbic systems, which is throwing our emotions out of whack? And if so, how does this happen?

The limbic system, an ancient part of any human, reptile, or mammal, is where we process emotions. The limbic system also governs our appetite, libido, sleep cycles, and emotional bonding. If the limbic system gets thrown out of balance through too much stress, it can make regulating our appetites and  moods more difficult.

No Where to Run and No Where to Hide

When we’re in a painful or irritating situation that we feel we have no control over and cannot escape, whether that is a lousy work environment, a pain filled home, or a bad marriage, we are caused a lot of stress, which accumulates over time. Our fight or flight apparatus (which is part of our limbic system) becomes constantly revved up for defensive action, for fleeing for safety or for fighting. B However we can do neither, or at least we feel like we can’t. We have no way to “work it off”, that is to shake, run, hit, or yell away those extra stress chemicals that are boiling up inside of us. When stress becomes cumulative it can make us feel tired, foggy, anxious, crabby, or even depressed. When our limbic kick-switch gets stuck on that defensive position of fight or flight, we lose some of our capacity to self-regulate, andwhen we lose the capacity to “regulate” our uncomfortable emotions ourselves, we may turn to something outside of ourselves to sooth our frayed feelings. It’s natural. Sitting down to a yummy sweet along with a cup of tea or coffee is an age-old way of self-soothing, and a perfectly harmless one, if done in moderation.  When eating becomes what we do to calm down when we’re stressed or feel better when we’re feeling down, however, it can have serious consequences. Food starts to be a “substance” that we use, or rather misuse, to feel better fast. Unfortunately, when we become dependent on something outside of ourselves to regulate our moods, to take stress or emotional pain away, we weaken our ability to calm ourselves down, .to self soothe in natural, albeit slower ways.

Stress, because it is stored in the body, can also give rise to unpleasant body sensations, such as heart-pounding, queasiness, sweating, muscle tension, back aches, stomach aches, and shortness of breath. This rise in disturbing body sensations can trigger feelings of emotional uneasiness, which in turn causes us to feel more stressed so we eat to feel better. Instead of that good feeling lasting, however, the stress comes back,  so we continue to eat more to make that stress go away. Food becomes a sort of self-administered medication, but sooner or later the medication becomes a primary problem of its own. The food is eating us on the inside, making us feel  bad about ourselves, then that bad feeling becomes stressful and there we go again!  It becomes a vicious circle where we develop a dysfunctional relationship with food, a dysfunctional eating pattern that we may need help to break.

Why is it that when we see someone we love using drugs or alcohol to self medicate, to a point where we watch their lives begin to spin out of control, we know, or at least feel, that we should do something, or try to  reach out and help them. When someone we care about is self-medicating with food to a point that their bodies, their health, their ability to feel comfortable within themselves, and their relationship with the world is being affected, however, why do we like we cannot say  anything?

Don’t misunderstand me, having conversations like this is something we all want to avoid, but it seems to me that there is less stigma attached to talking to an alcoholic about their drinking than there is to talking to someone about their compulsive relationship with food. Obesity and addiction are among the nation’s top diseases. While there are many factors that can lead to obesity, the connection between over eating and weight gain is pretty clear.

Perhaps understanding the connection between stress and over eating can help someone to feel less at fault, and more open to reaching out for help. It’s ok not to feel ok and reaching out for help is often the hardest (and the best) part.

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