Feeling or numbing? Can I get another doughnut over here, please? (Yes, extra icing on top)
Just as my hand reached out to grab another doughnut as I was lost in worrying over yet another life logistics issue I jerked awake and consciously pulled my hand out of that confectionary box. Yep.. about to numb again, I thought. By this point I was pretty used to noticing these small things about myself but when I first discovered the concept of “numbing” it freaked the living heck out of me. Mostly because I realized that I had been numbing or attempting to numb a very large number of uncomfortable emotions through the course of my life one way or another.
When I say numbing here I mean distracting ourselves with something in order not to feel the so-called negative emotions (anger/anxiety/sadness/fear/shame/loneliness/insert as appropriate). And from my personal experience and that of my loved ones we can be very creative in coming up with the ways of running from these. One minute you’re sitting on the grass enjoying the sunshine and you’re feeling good and the next you feel a pang of something unpleasant and a moment later you find yourself sniffling down a box of chocolates or smoking a cigarette (sometimes, both..). And these are just your common ones. Alcohol, drugs, sex, staying in unhealthy relationships to avoid feeling lonely, binge-watching TV series, playing video games – anything for the sake of comfort.
And I am by no means saying that we shouldn’t indulge in a box of chocolates sometimes, I’m the first one for it! In fact, I think it’s really healthy to indulge in things that are delicious, life’s too short to deny ourselves a nice glass of red wine with those fine looking truffles (oh yeah, those M&S Taste the Difference ones I’m talking about are goood…) But what really struck me, is that we often eat not for the sake of pleasure or getting enough fuel into our bodies but in order not to feel. That was a scary realization for me, it made me wonder - how many health issues can we solve if we address the real reason we’re eating excessively/drinking/smoking?
So then I got to thinking and speaking to several nutritionists and psychologists about what lies behind this whole notion of eating/etc. in order to makes ourselves feel better. As it turns out, there is a whole solid scientific explanation backing this up. So to start from the basics, carbohydrates can serve a very important function to our central nervous system – they can actually calm it down. And let’s face it, when we’re stressed, we ain’t craving kale, that’s for sure. The more carbs-y the better! So habitual stress (and that can manifest in many different ways – from feeling strong sadness to being in the fight or flight mode response) coupled with absence of strong stress relief/endorphin generating habits can cause us to calm our anxious nervous system through mindless eating. Sometimes we also fill the so called missing parts in our life with food. For example, if we learned to associate food with love as children and at some point we feel unloved and begin to crave it – fries to the rescue! (Dang, I knew there was a reason for my food obsession with potatoes hah, apparently they bring me love,;))
So to my question as to what I can do to turn my somewhat unhealthy love for potato chips into a healthy affair, I was given some good tips to incorporate into my food routine that I’d like to share with you. First of all, becoming aware of those cravings and what we feel when we get them. Even if initially nothing changes in our behaviour, it’s integral to understand what drives these cravings. Is it anxiety? Or perhaps, a comment on something that triggers some bad memories for us, or even just a snack routine we set up for ourselves earlier that is no longer serving us well? Then it becomes about figuring out what we can do to unwind the ties between these specific triggers and cravings – and it can range from working these out in our mind psychologically (if for example, it’s anxiety related or when we use food to act as emotion substitute) to setting up healthy routines in the form of snacks, gym plans or anything active that you enjoy doing). And thankfully our bodies are very grateful creatures and re-balance pretty quickly – researchers say, provided a good balanced diet with low saturated fats and relatively low sugar levels it doesn’t take all that long at all to bring metabolism and blood chemistry in check.
I must say I’m a fan of slow but solid progress myself. Having been a serial dieter for a very long time and having eventually lost 40 pounds about 6 years ago and also having kept them off I can say the one and only thing that worked for me long term was actually stopping dieting completely and figuring out a healthy slow progress plan that I’m comfortable with sticking for the rest of my life. Becoming aware of all the habits and triggers and making slow changes did take some time, I would say about a year, but it was sure worth it! I think living with the restrictive mindset brings more harm than good and those truffles will continue calling my name on occasion, but from now on because I like their taste and not because I feel anxious or sad (most of the time, anyway;)).