I want to talk today about food - something we take for granted as essential for life! We need it for energy for our cells, energy to survive, and the way we as animals obtain our energy is from eating either other animals or plants. However food also has an emotional component and as you know that’s how I work with people helping them to release emotional trauma and stuck emotions in their bodies. So I want to talk about how food can be used as an avoidance or a control tactic for not dealing with your emotions – and this creates all sorts of distortions and cravings.
The kinds of emotions that might trigger a craving would be things like guilt, anger, fear, grief, a sense of maybe humiliation or betrayal - all these emotions go very deep within the human being as emotions are not just a mental construct they're felt in the body and they actually change our metabolism and they affect the way we feel! They interact with our hormones, the neurotransmitters in our brain even and they can create huge cravings for things if we're out of balance and if we're feeling overwhelmed in our emotions and we don't know how to process our emotions. And sadly, a lot of us are in that situation and I know I get cravings for sweet things very often and what I have to do is look beneath what's actually going on in my body what am I actually feeling beneath the craving and there's usually something I’m pushing back down - I’m just not wanting to look at because it feels overwhelming or uncomfortable or I feel like I can't cope with it.
So food can be like a currency or substitute for what you'd rather not look at - you can use the food to control things in a way that perhaps feels a little easier than dealing with the unpredictability of emotions (which can be frightening as we feel so out of control) And so we have these natural urges to eat but they can become taken over by these incredible strong, overwhelming ‘back brain’ (limbic system and brainstem) feelings of I’ve got to eat now! And it's not a choice that you're making, that's why diets often don't work because they work while you're in the situation of being encouraged and supported but when the diet or the program ends and you're back with your normal emotions and your normal coping strategies - the old patterns will re-emerge of wanting to avoid and wanting to stuff down all the uncomfortable things that are coming up in you.
Why willpower doesn’t work
It's no use really telling yourself you're going to do better next time because that's using a conscious thought to try and override these unconscious processes or programs that you're running. Much better indeed is a way of looking at yourself compassionately and trying to be kind to yourself in those moments when maybe you've eaten more than you needed to or you've eaten the kinds of foods that you know are not healthy. Try going inside and finding out what you're trying to avoid feeling and then soothing it - learning ways and techniques to soothe is essential. I teach these techniques when you work one-to-one with me but I also teach them on the emotional audit program which I run two or three times a year. So if you're interested in learning techniques of how to soothe yourself without having this awful boom and bust cycle where you get all enthusiastic about making a change in your life and then it goes to the wall as usual then check out the emotional component and my programme if you are interested.
The thing is, we're all essentially vulnerable to our feelings, to being overwhelmed, particularly when we're children - where we have more challenge than support or our nervous systems are already stressed and can't adapt to the current stressor (otherwise known as adverse childhood experience or 'complex trauma' - not the same as one off experiences of abuse, etc). These become patterns in our nervous system even in adult life so when we get stressed in adult life we'll revert to the patterns we had when we were young so if food was a sort of currency in your house - if it was used to control you or it was used to punish you or in fact you learned to punish yourself with food, either the absence of food or the overeating of food, then these patterns become very embedded and are very difficult to change - especially if you're just trying to use willpower or conscious thought because they don't come from a conscious part of your brain, they come from your emotional brain which is right at the back of your brain, beneath your thinking hemispheres (the cortex). And it can leave us feeling very out of control actually when we when we realize we're doing this but it doesn't work to tell ourselves off or to shame ourselves in the way we normally do (and in fact a lot of weight loss and addiction programmes use)!
Compassion and vulnerability in healing – the underlying emotions
It's actually much better to show yourself compassion and to learn how to soothe and realize that actually the cravings are there for a purpose, they're not there to harm you they're there to divert your attention away from what your mind and body believe is a very dangerous thing. So whether it's overwhelming emotions that you can't deal with or a situation that you feel is out of control, these cravings will come to keep you safe but of course they're not they're keeping you stuck in a pattern that you are unaware of and unable to change.
So giving yourself permission to choose differently is not an act of willpower it's an act of self-compassion, self-love; it's about going within to find out that vulnerability is not necessarily weakness, it can actually be a strength. It's the source of your creativity in fact (see Brene Brown's work on this). To be able to rewire that you're going to need support and help either through self-soothing techniques which use usually touch - I use something called havening - a wonderful self-touch technique which uses stroking down the arms or the face to give your body the messages that it's safe neurologically And that helps to stabilize your nervous system while you create a new neurological pattern in your brain via something called neuroplasticity.
Think of it as 'auto-rewiring' because that's what it is - it's linking different neurons together in a new pattern and it allows you to change old habits, old coping strategies that you adopted, perhaps from your childhood, that haven't been updated. And it does so without creating more of the same negative inputs you received: more shame, more guilt. You don't want to go down that route, you want to be able to do this in the light of compassion in the way that allows you to move forward as an adult with different choices (a response-ability)! So that's what I encourage people to do - it's really powerful and it's a whole lot easier than just trying to say to yourself ‘I’ll do better next time’ which rarely works. Far better is to heal the underlying emotions.
You see what we're doing with food addictions or cravings, with any form of habitual activity, whether it's eating, drinking, smoking, is to realise it has a purpose to help you so the important thing is to give your body an alternative way of providing that help. So you're choosing differently, learning to forgive yourself for the patterns you've adopted that did work at a certain time but are now maladaptive. Then we can create a new future for you by transforming the past experience into gold*, making the past not something to be avoided but something that is allowing you to transform yourself into the person you really are without your story (the authentic self). So ask yourself ‘who am I without my story, can I forgive myself for being where I am and for adopting certain patterns?’ We might then explore what is it that you want to do with your life and how you might best do that..
If you can begin to live compassionately (compassion comes from within it's not just something you give to other people, it's something that you must really learn to feel for yourself), you might find you have to first forgive yourself a lot of your own vulnerability. Indeed this is what I had to do to heal; I had to admit to myself that I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) and I am quite vulnerable, despite my coping strategy of appearing be ok, and able to do anything -which is just not true at all!
Transformation is possible
So, transformation is possible for everybody and certainly in the area of addictions this is actually a lot easier when you work through the body (somatically) which connects with your unconscious brain to transform these hardwired patterns. If that sounds interesting to you and you want to know more do get in contact - details below.
*Brene Brown's talk on creativity and vulnerability and her book Daring Greatly
See The Scar that won’t Heal by Patricia Worby, PhD on Amazon and audible