Are there positive thoughts strong enough to stop us from self soothing through food?
After all, it is ingrained in humans at birth. We learn early in life to soothe with food. Just watch a baby cry for milk then snuggle in for nursing. It is the epitome of comfort – you can feel the physical relaxation that milk and cuddling bring.
Fast forward 20 years and the self soothing with a gallon of ice cream after a break up alone in your kitchen while sobbing an ugly cry is just not as cute. Not that I’ve been there.
The difference in these two scenarios is clear from the outside. The unfortunate part is that it should be as different on the inside. We should have matured past these primitive behaviors. And most of us have not.
Why Do We Start Self Soothing with Food?
Food is important for babies. Well, for everyone really. But babies need adults to give them food to keep them alive. They cry out of a biological need for food in order to survive. And they cry louder and louder if you don’t feed them. That is their nature to protect themselves and be heard. It comes from our primitive, under-developed brain.
They “soothe” as a response to feeding. They are able to relax once their brain knows their needs will be met. Food in the stomach allows for relaxation or activation of their parasympathetic nervous system (if you want to sound scientifically smart). We see this visually by a loosening of the tenseness in their bodies.
Why Do We Keep Self Soothing?
The unfortunate thing is that we learn to like that feeling of comfort a little too much. A little is good for survival, too much is not. And we are raised to appreciate food for soothing as well. How often did your Mom say, “You hurt yourself? Here’s some ice cream.” Or, “Someone hurt your feelings? Have a cookie and let’s talk about it.” Not much different than the milk really. I know I have been guilty of that as a Mom myself.
We learn over the years to distract from negative emotions with treats, and frequently those treats are easily available food. This is a concept known as buffering. It can be done with alcohol, drugs, and shopping as well. Once you pass the years of growing metabolism, that self soothing through buffering that leads to extra pounds.
Unfortunately, many of us never grow past this self soothing behavior emotionally either. We don’t even recognize it let alone learn better techniques to circumvent the self soothing behaviors. We still function emotionally like that crying baby waiting for milk and we may not even recognize that. I know I didn’t until recently. Ouch.
How to Recognize Self Soothing Eating
The good news is that the first step to stop self soothing with food is easy – recognizing it. Once you start to become mindful about your self soothing behaviors you are on your way to fixing them.
When you feel that emotional pit in your stomach (not the physical sensation of hunger) and head into the kitchen, simply start by asking yourself:
“What am I thinking right now?”
“Why am I choosing food for comfort?”
The feeling will likely be obvious. But the thought behind it more difficult to nail down. Sit for a moment and just let your brain unload those thoughts. If this is an ongoing issue for you, write them down in your journal or phone.
You will begin to see the thought patterns that are leading to your eating. It is difficult at first because it is one of your first learned coping techniques. You have likely rarely or never even thought about why you self soothe with food but I would bet you have thought extensively of the weight gain results you get from it. And wondered why you can’t quit the behavior.
Why Self Soothing Eating Only Makes it Worse
Sometimes self soothing eating may be obvious. When you are eating ice cream after a break-up, that is pretty obvious. Sometimes, it may not be.
My husband will come home grumpy some days. And I know where he is headed – to the kitchen cabinet. I know he is choosing self soothing eating at that moment. And there is NO way I am telling him that at the time. I’m brave but not that brave. I know better than to get my head bit off. He is busy buffering his negative emotion and not in a place to deal with anything.
Unfortunately, I also know he will be even more angry at himself for eating those foods later. Self soothing eating when you are struggling with weight only adds self-defeating emotion to the negative emotion you are already feeling, even if you are not ready to admit it.
And what’s crazy is we don’t even recognize it in ourselves until we start looking. How can we fix it if we don’t look?
So, my challenge to you this week is to START asking the good questions when you are standing in front of the fridge after a hard day instead of putting your head down in ice cream. Don’t rush to the positive thoughts – yet. Instead, ask yourself “What am I thinking right now” and “Why am I choosing to eat?”
When the inevitable answer is “I am thinking I want to eat to avoid sadness or shame or pain,” just stop for a moment. Write down all of the thoughts going through your head. And live with the sadness, pain, or shame for a few minutes. It will pass. And so will your compulsion to eat.
If your mind is blown, so was mine. Believe me, a few months ago I would NEVER have thought of any of this. And I went to medical school for crying out loud. Unless you are looking and MINDFUL of your eating habits, you won’t find this in the next fad diet coming down the pike. And it is as, if not more, important than diet itself to change your weight loss journey.
Simple Solution: Self soothing with food is ingrained in us as humans. Start by asking 2 simple questions when you see those behaviors pop up. Write down your thoughts and live in the emotion for a few minutes. This simple process will start to change the behaviors.
For More Blog Posts on Beating Emotional Eating, check out:
For More on Questions to Ask Yourself, check out Brooke’ Castillo’s podcast: