Most of my clients who come to me for weight loss coaching need a hand with some kind of problem eating. I’m using the phrase ‘problem eating’ to encompass everything including binge eating, overeating, eating for emotional reasons, or simply eating junk when they don’t want to. Cookie benders, late night forays into the fridge, or sneaking forbidden foods when you’re alone. The details don’t matter. If you are bothered, even once in a blue moon, by your eating behavior, you can do something about it.
Problem eating is a coping mechanism, not a personal flaw. It serves a purpose. If you want to stop the behavior, then you’re already feeling on some level that this isn’t necessarily working for you anymore. And as such, it can feel self-defeating to continue the problem behavior, as you witness over and over again how well it doesn’t work. But it’s not enough to want to stop, we need to first recognize the function of the problem eating, and then find another way to fulfill that need.
Escape is just one of MANY functions of problem eating, but it’s a common one. My clients sometimes say that eating junk food goes along with some kind of trance or a feeling like they’re hypnotized. It can feel good to “check out” and that feeling makes them want to prolong the episode. You might feel the urge to binge or seek junk food when you are stressed by work or family, have a confrontation or argument, or feel uneasy or distressed. If this sounds applicable to you, read on. I’m going to share some of my strategies for how to break free of escape-driven eating. (If you’d like one-on-one help, information can be found here on private coaching).
How to Change The Pattern
Practice Daily Resilience
If a client and I have determined that a desire to escape is contributing to their problem eating, I like to employ a two pronged approach. On one hand, there is great relief in learning that you don’t have to run and hide from many things that seem scary and awful. We work toward this with a specific daily practice which can be summed up as rehearsing your own resilience, aka “get a little uncomfortable so you can practice tolerating it”. While that sounds somewhat unpleasant, it actually isn’t if you start small enough. The more frequently someone engages in problem eating, the more they need to do this exercise.
The goal is not to make yourself suffer but rather, remind yourself that you aren’t made of glass. You can handle more than you think. To try this out, next time you get a little too chilly or too warm, sit for 60 seconds, or even 30, before grabbing a sweater or retreating into the air conditioning. Nothing scary, just a few seconds. That’s just one example of getting physically uncomfortable, you could find dozens of ways to push your comfort zone just a bit.
Deliberately tolerating a bit of mental or emotional discomfort can be tougher, but even more empowering. Some simple ways to do this are to state your opinion when you’re tempted to silence it, or stay in a room when someone you dislike shows up and you feel like bolting. Any way you can identify in your own behavior that you flee from discomfort, try and wait just one minute before doing it, and you’re making progress.
With time, this exercise can be quite exciting, exhilarating even. Glimpsing how resilient you really are is the first step to defeating escape-driven eating. As you come to accept your own strength, fewer and fewer things will seem scary, the urge to escape from every small disturbance and uncertainty will fade.
Choose Healthy Tension Management
The second side of attack is finding a healthy outlet to replace food for when you do want to manage stress and tensions. While rehearsing your own resilience may teach you that you may not need to run and hide from little things, a desire to unwind and release tensions is a normal human need for dealing with the stresses of life. My goal for my clients here is to find the ultimate empowerment: the choice to stand and manage unpleasantness as it comes, or the option to release and manage stress in a healthful way, at the appropriate time. Exercise, walks, spending time with loved ones, laughing at a movie, spilling your thoughts to a good friend, all of these can help process stress and be free from it.
Relapse is Not Failure
One last point to remember: Even when you’ve made the commitment to break out of any problem eating habit, it can still tempt you. You might miss it. You might do it again. Part of the reason that bingeing or problem eating behavior remains somewhat alluring, even as you see its futility, is that it’s familiar. You know how it goes. When we are stressed, our brains like familiarity. Like mom’s home cooking when we’re sick or your own bed after a long day of travel. It’s okay to acknowledge this, if the temptation comes up to do an old behavior, know that the familiarity is part of why it’s a draw. While you are practicing the alternative stress-relieving or tension taming activities, you are making new familiar behaviors which will cement into a more effective, healthy habit.
If you slip up and find yourself escaping by eating or overeating, don’t get caught up in thinking it’s a disaster. It’s not. This doesn’t put you back at the starting line. A relapse is a normal part of the process of moving on from a behavior. Why? It gives us reassurance that we still CAN do that if we want to, and often, reassurance that we actually don’t want to.
I don’t normally hear clients say that they slipped up and ate a bunch of junk food and it felt incredible. Usually, it’s quite the opposite. They feel bad inside and out. Stomach aches, trouble sleeping, and generally feeling like crap. “No problem.” I say. “Then we know we are moving in the right direction in working to leave that behavior behind. Isn’t it good to know you aren’t missing out?”
PS – Leave a comment if you’ve got any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear.