By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS & Barbara Cook
Have you ever seen people in movies or on TV diving into a tub of ice cream when they’re heartbroken or stressed? Have you ever been that person? Some people think that this common human experience looks like weakness or failure, but what that experience really means is that our bodies want the best for us, and that they are always trying to soothe and protect us.
See, hunger when you’re stressed is not a bad thing. It is a signal that your body is trying to look after you. When you’re low on energy, or feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed, your body perceives that hard times or scarce times might be coming, and it wants to equip you with energy to face that hard time. To achieve that, your body makes more ghrelin when times get tough, a hormone that makes you feel calmer and happier, and also powerfully signals you to eat (Abizaid, 20198; Schellekens et al, 2012).
Ghrelin doesn’t make you want just any old food; during times of stress, it urges us to look for rich, delicious, calorie-dense foods, to eat more of those than we might normally want, and to protect the energy those foods give us by making it into fat that can be stored. Stress-induced hunger and food cravings are not you being bad or undisciplined or wrong; they’re your body asking you to care for yourself. They’re your body setting you up to survive and thrive in a world that can be tough.
All people’s bodies have always done this, and they probably always will. No, we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore, foraging for seasonal foods and occasionally binging on protein after a successful hunt that helps us ride out the lean times, when there’s less food available. But that doesn’t mean the world isn’t still stressful, and our bodies still respond to stress in a way that is geared to keep us from starving: “Eat!” our bodies say when we’re stressed, “Build up an energy store! Hard times are here!”
The difference is, now we know what our bodies are doing, and we know whether we’re actually going to starve or not. We can move from anxiously storing up reserves to prepare for scarcity that never actually comes, to finding ways of meeting what is often really a need for soothing and self-care. Does that mean you shouldn’t eat when you’re stressed? Maybe; maybe not. The basic guideline is awareness.
Next time you feel stressed and decide you need to munch something, check in with how you’re seeing and responding to the world; tune in to how you’re feeling. Are you revved up, feeling you need to defend yourself, fight something, or run away? Are you shut down? Feeling the need to hide from a world that sometimes feels overwhelming? Now take 5 deep breaths. It’s such a simple tool, but it modifies the body’s response to stress so that you can see more clearly what you really need. Just 5 deep, aware breaths let your body know that you’re ready to partner with it, listen to it, and let it help you be ok.
When we move through the universal, human experience of stress and hunger with awareness and an attitude of self-care, we transform the stress-hunger experience into information we can use to guide us to what we need. Over time, this practice has a powerful impact on eating patterns, so that instead of being a source of conflict and failure, your appetite can become a friendly voice, there to guide you with wisdom about your emotional and nutritional needs.
Listen with kindness to your hunger. It has so much to tell you.
By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS & Barbara Cook
Would you ever tell a friend that they are lazy, that they shouldn't eat so much, or that they should exercise more? Would you tell someone that if they're unhappy with the size and shape of their body, well, that's just their own fault? Most pAbouteople would think that was pretty unacceptable, but many people do precisely that to themselves.
Lots of people think that they need to talk to themselves (or about themselves) like this. They feel that putting themselves down will motivate them to do better, work harder, or be more disciplined. And if they could only do better, work harder, and be more disciplined, their body would look the way it's "supposed" to, and life would be perfect.
But new research suggests that blaming, shaming, and negative self-talk won't improve your health and eating patterns or cause weight loss in the long term. Shaming your own body and eating are examples of internalized weight stigma. And, weight stigma perpetrated against you, or upon yourself, can lead to disordered eating, increased stress hormones (which contribute to stress-induced weight gain), and a sinking feeling that you've lost control. A recent study found that "when participants were manipulated to experience weight stigma, their eating increased, their self-regulation decreased, and their cortisol (an obesogenic hormone) levels were higher relative to controls." (Tomiyama et al, 2018) In other words, self-shaming or being shamed by others triggers physiological and behavioral changes that can negatively impact metabolic health and perpetuate disordered eating patterns and weight gain. This research reveals the health benefits of exerting boundaries with anyone who might put you down, including yourself!
Watch how this works in your life. You might find that self-shaming keeps you on a diet in the short term or even causes temporary weight loss. But over time, the hustle to "fix" your body sets up a cycle of equal and opposite reactions - weight loss to weight gain, food restriction to binging, feeling proud to feeling a sense of failure, etc. As shame becomes a habit, you might notice that you are hungrier, more dependent on highly-rewarding food and substances, and feel that you've lost control of your eating.
The good news is that you can be free. Instead of being pushed around by shame, you can learn to regulate the feelings that drive the cycle. You can learn to calm the storm inside by taking care of yourself instead of punishing or giving up on yourself. You can even learn to love your body and enjoy the way you look without changing anything. You can learn how to stop putting yourself down and shine the light of self-acceptance into the lives of everyone you know for a more body-positive world.
If you're ready to release the emotional weight of blame and shame, let's talk.
Tomiyama, A. J., Carr, D., Granberg, E. M., Major, B., Robinson, E., Sutin, A. R., & Brewis, A. (2018). How and why weight stigma drives the obesity 'epidemic' and harms health. BMC Medicine, 16(1), 123. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1116-5
If you or someone you love struggles with disordered eating or an eating disorder, a mindful eating practice can help you recover. Research suggests that mindful eating reduces binge/purge eating patterns, increases your satisfaction, and even improves metabolic activity. Watch this video if you'd like to experience mindful eating.
Alison shares a simple, yet powerful shift that can help you self-regulate when you feel shame about your body.
Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.
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