The Undertow: Swimming Against the Undercurrent of Emotional Eating
Ocean waves break over the shallows created by a reef or sandbar. The typical surf zone set-up consists of an alternating series of shallow and deep spots called channels. Waves approach a beach, crest and break over the rocks, reef or sandbars. The water flows back out to sea via the deeper channels, creating a rip current or undertow. This outflow is used by surfers to return out beyond the breakers almost effortlessly in order to catch their next wave. If you know how to use it, the undertow can be a powerful ally. If you don’t understand its dynamics, you can find yourself caught up in an exhausting battle that is likely to drown you.
I cannot tell you how often I’d sit in consultation with patients in utter disbelief. How could this outwardly beautiful person feel so inwardly ugly? Why would this seemingly successful person feel so defeated? What has caused this otherwise stable person to act so irrationally? What is driving this behavior?
How could someone feel so full and so empty at the same time?
This is the paradox of emotional eating. And no amount of dieting, meal plans, or workshops on what to eat and what not eat is going to fix the problem. Emotional eating can be defined as turning to food when there is no physical hunger. You are emotionally eating when you use food as your drug of choice, in an effort to self-medicate the pangs of something that is conscious or subconscious. The root of the true hunger may be emotional, psychological or spiritual. Food is used to numb, distract, comfort or relieve the ache associated with something that is deeply missing in our lives.
We are designed with specific needs. Human beings experience their greatest health potential when exposed to the optimal environment. Our internal environment is determined by how we eat, move and think. Our genes have been shaped over thousands of generations to require specific elements or nutrients in order to function optimally. These essential elements have been identified and documented by the best researchers in the fields of physiology, nutrition, psychology and genetics, among others. When these essential elements are provided consistently by our lifestyle choices and behavior patterns, cells function optimally and we experience health. In other words, we look, feel, and function well.
If these essential elements are not provided – and our innate needs are not met – we develop deficiencies. These deficiencies manifest over time as adaptive behaviors. We behave differently.
When we are missing an essential element such as Vitamin D, we could express outward signs of immune system compromise, osteoporosis or even Rickets. But how do we express a deficiency in the essential element of connection? Or acceptance? Or unconditional love?
Emotional eating is usually associated with some type of “trigger” that sets the behavior in motion. These situational cues can be thoughts, smells, images, or stimulation of other senses that launch a behavior that seeks to calm, satisfy or appease a perceived need that would otherwise go unfulfilled.
Emotional eating is typically fueled by feelings of anxiety, fear, inadequacy, resentment or anger. These triggers can start a cascade of behaviors that can seem to initially satisfy or relieve, but will ultimately feed into a vicious cycle of physical and emotional suffering and emptiness. This vortex of feelings is fortified by real chemistry changes that effect body and mind. Food choices effect dramatic swings in blood sugar levels, as well as neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that effect mood - like serotonin (provides sedation and calmness) and endorphins (produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria).
Trying to derail the downward spiral of emotional eating is the psychological equivalent of trying to swim against the undertow. You must start by understanding the forces that are driving this behavior and get equipped to untangle yourself from the deeper root of these feelings. Swimming blindly against the outflow of emotional needs can be exhausting.
The psychological undercurrent associated with emotional eating can be identified and leveraged to make real and lasting change. Having an awareness of the cause of your feelings and behaviors is the first step to regaining control of your choices, health and happiness (to be continued).
Stay tuned to this series of posts and be sure to attend the March 24th workshop on Emotional Eating to unlock the truth around this social epidemic and the keys to adopting the behaviors that provide true satiety for body, mind and spirit.
You are loved,
Dr. Stephen Franson