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The perils of emotional overeating

Date
A typical response to emotional trauma.

A typical response to emotional trauma.

Spring has arrived and everybody is active, smiling, and getting outdoors. But what if you're hurting on the inside? We have break-ups to deal with. Work stress. Deaths in the family. Anxieties that stay with us from a young age. Sometimes in life, life wins.

When life is throwing a battle your way, what do you do? William Shakespeare once wrote, "To quinoa or tequila? That is the question" ... well, anyway ... when people experience emotional pain, the "go healthy or go partying" reflex is the fork in the road many face.

Do emotions get you eating and partying and putting on weight? For many, that answer is "yes". The next two questions are "Why do emotions drive us to drink and eat?" and "How can we deal with them?"

Why do we emotionally eat and drink?

My non-clinical mind understands that we overeat and drink to avoid the real issue that's bothering us. Our minds hurt, and we look for the speediest remedy that will take our mind and body to a different place … drugs, alcohol, or heaps of tasty food that will quickly trigger happiness.

I asked the professionals, and here's what they said:

David Godden (Director, Byron Bay Addiction and Trauma Centre): "Today we have a culture of avoiding whatever we want and we have so many ways of doing it - playing with gadgets, getting deep into work, or watching endless hours of TV. We drink and overeat when we have strong emotions because we have never been taught how to deal with them."

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer: "You do it because it feels good; it helps alleviate the immediate pain, and there is a little part of you that thinks 'let's see what happens when I make some different/less grown-up choices'. Humans are great at over-discounting future events - things done in the moment have greater gravitas than the long-term outcome. Immediate pain can be anesthetised by booze and delicious treats, but the spin-offs can create more angst."

Psychotherapist Nick Terrone said: "People only act in accordance to their hierarchy of values. Regarding a break-up, if you perceive the individual has been supporting your values, you'll be 'down'. If you perceived them in opposition to, or holding you back from the fulfillment of your values, you'll celebrate the break-up."

How can we deal with emotional eating and drinking pains?

Most of us know why we do it, but dealing with it is a tougher beast. Dr Glen Hosking says: "It's important to accept that emotional pain is an inevitable part of life. Whilst unpleasant, avoiding the pain through drinking or overeating only intensifies it in the longer term. A more helpful approach is to accept the unpleasant, remind yourself that it is an acceptable reaction to the situation, and ride it out. By doing this, it will usually pass. If it doesn't, seek professional help."

Break-ups, abuse, boredom, work and family stress … they all can trigger emotional eating and drinking. I've had my own events in life, and sometimes that "to quinoa or tequila" decision is a tough one. Ultimately, I try my hardest to do what's best for my mind and body.

Whatever the problem is, we all know eating a whole cake won't fix it. Drinking umpteen beers won't fix it. We must remember to feed our bodies, not our feelings. So, let's all get back to the running and Tassie salmon … all while keeping an eye on those emotions that sometimes like to dance with the food and booze devils. Tequila ain't the cure for a lump in the throat.

Dealing with clients on a personal level has given me my own psychological theory, which echoes the professionals from above: "The mind is like a waterfall; fit or overweight, whatever is affecting the mind will flow straight down to the rest of the body." Therefore, everybody should monitor their own emotional wellbeing, as that "healthy mind equals healthy body" equation is a gentle one.

If you're feeling down, just remember what feels good. Go for a run. Go for a hike. Go for a swim. Do something that makes you laugh, smile, and be happy. Keep it positive, fun, and healthy. It's easier said than done, I know … but that's the challenge we all face, men and women alike.

Life events can knock us all back a step or two … and sometimes down. We all just have to find a way to be strong, stand up, and put a healthy spring into our step in spring, summer and beyond.

Are you an emotional eater or drinker?

Follow Mike on Twitter or email him.

8 comments

  • 1. Talk to someone. Generally speaking, the more people you talk to the better.
    2. Keep busy. Polish your shoes, clean the toilet.
    3. Make yourself nice meals.
    4. Read something of value.
    5. Start exercising.
    6. Own your feelings. Its ok - accept them. Don't fight it.

    Commenter
    Graham
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 1:05PM
    • Keeping busy and accepting it are the ones that have worked best for me. Talking about it works for some people but is almost impossible for others, and may make it worse by rehearsing it.

      Commenter
      photondancer
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 2:50PM
  • Always about walking, running, swimming. What if you can't do those things?

    Commenter
    trinch
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 1:20PM
    • Trinch, that's when you eat!

      Commenter
      Red Rupert
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 1:36PM
      • Our society is broken. There is no sense of community. That's why people resort to self-medication, whether that be over eating or drugs and alcohol.

        Commenter
        Bob
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        September 11, 2013, 2:11PM
        • Hi Michael,

          Interesting article. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the gut-brain axis and how poor gut health is connected to depression, which then opens the potential for a person to enter into a positive feedback loop of over-eating poor food whilst in their depressive state (thereby further negatively affecting their gut health). There's some really interesting research out there on the gut-brain axis - although, currently, understanding of it's implications is in its infancy.

          Cheers!

          Commenter
          JHB
          Date and time
          September 11, 2013, 3:31PM
          • There is increasing evidence that differences in the kinds of bacteria which normally live in the gut (the "gut microbiome") can affect neurological issues - being on the Autism Spectrum Disorder range, experiencing anxiety or depression are all examples.

            This is very much at the "basic science" stage at the moment but, with more work, it may lead to new therapeutic approaches.

            There is a fair summary of the current position here: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling.Aspx .

            Commenter
            Dr Kiwi
            Date and time
            September 11, 2013, 4:38PM
          • Cheers!

            Commenter
            JHB
            Date and time
            September 11, 2013, 7:24PM
        Comments are now closed
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