For years I convinced myself that food made me feel good. I really thought it was true. After a long, hard day at work, thinking about relaxing at home with Mexican food and ice cream seemed to calm me. It provided a release. It gave me something to look forward to in stressful or emotional moments. Planning my “comfort food” let me escape for just a few minutes.
What I’ve come to realize is that I used food as a numbing agent. I thought it made me feel good – I thought I loved to eat and really enjoyed food. I was wrong. It didn’t make me feel good and I didn’t love to eat. Food was my drug and I was addicted. Junk food actually made me feel awful. I don’t know how I had myself fooled for so long.
I wasn’t addicted to the food itself but rather to the way it numbed my mind. I preferred to eat alone, and when I did my problems, stresses and worries were suspended. They weren’t resolved, they weren’t eliminated, they were just temporarily out of my head for just a few minutes while the only thing that existed was food.
Unfortunately, there was ugly aftermath. Not only did I return to reality with the last bite and all my stresses, worries and problems were once again top of mind, but they were compounded by frustration and self-loathing. I would be angry with myself for once again not making a healthy choice and indulging my cravings. I didn’t understand why I’d continue to make a choice that I always ended up regretting? I didn’t understand why I’d tell myself that food felt so good when clearly it didn’t.
I started to pay close attention to the types of situations and emotions that preceded less than ideal decision-making. I found that I craved “junk food” when I was stressed, sad, tired or lonely.
I started paying attention to what I felt as I prepared the food and as I ate it. There was a very strong sense of excitement and anticipation beforehand and almost no thoughts, feelings or sensations as I consumed it. In fact, oftentimes, after eating, I could hardly even remember eating or what it tasted like.
It was an escape. It numbed me. It allowed me to hide from the world but I was hiding deep in a hole that just got deeper and darker each day. What I thought was helping me – what I thought was providing me relief and happiness – it was actually making me miserable.
So how do you get out of the hole? How do you finally realize it isn’t worth it – it isn’t serving you and that what you think feels good really doesn’t feel good at all?
- Pay attention. As tedious as it sounds, keep a journal of your hunger, cravings and associated feelings. It can be as simple as jotting down “Pissed off. Want ice cream” or “feeling lonely and frustrated. Want to pick up Mexican on the way home from work” or “Great day at work, eating clean seems easy today!” It’s also important to make note of how you feel during and after you eat. It won’t take as long as you think – you can do this in less than 30 seconds. Don’t feel pressured to censor your feelings or behavior as you do this, it is just about awareness right now.
- Look for patterns. After a few weeks of journaling your thoughts and feelings associated with your hunger, cravings and food choices you should start to identify some patterns. Maybe towards the end of the week when you’re tired and stressed you tend to make more unhealthy choices than early in the week. Maybe when you have a disagreement with your boss or your spouse your discipline and drive seems to evaporate and you seek escape in food. Again, there is no pressure to change the behavior right now, you just want to become aware of the patterns.
- Try something new. I completely understand that it’s easier to do what feels familiar than it is to try something new. But you know what? You can’t change your life without changing, ya know what I mean? Pick one scenario that seems to encourage unhealthy choices and decide you’re going to approach it differently. Let’s say its seeking comfort from food after fighting with your spouse. The next time you fight with your spouse, choose to engage in something that truly relaxes you. Take a hot bath, go for a walk or watch a funny movie. Start small and start to retrain your brain to find comfort in something other than food.
- Practice. Once is not enough and its only failure if you give up on yourself. The first few times you might take a bath and still go for the ice cream afterwards. That’s ok. Be kind to yourself. Make note of the feelings and keep trying. As with anything, you improve with practice. We’re not after perfection here, we’re after progress.
The first step is awareness. If you are unhappy with your body, if you want to get healthy but you still find yourself making choices that keep you from reaching your goals, its time to seriously evaluate whether or not those choices are actually serving you. You might find out that what you think feels good actually doesn’t.