How to Root Out the Underlying Cause of Overeating

We often turn to food to quell feelings we haven’t found better ways of dealing with

Most of us have heard the term “freshman 15,” referring to the 15 pounds many college students gain during their first year away from home. But a similar phenomenon occurs for many adults over the winter. When it’s cold and we spend more time inside, we humans go through our own hibernation process, which often results in overeating and an uptick in clothing size or a full-on surrender to sweatpants.

But it’s not just the winter months. COVID has also made food an attractive way to manage the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of the last two years. Food has offered comfort, pleasure, and distraction, as well as a solution to boredom. Predictably, many people have ended up with extra weight, which now has its own name: “the COVID 15.”

So, as spring prepares to bloom, you may find yourself wanting to bloom into a new body, one that can fit back into your old clothes—or into new clothes without an elastic waistband.

But this article is not about eating less or differently, or exercising more or smarter; it’s not about the practical elements involved in shedding your winter or pandemic pounds. You can find diet and exercise information in countless other places, and, in fact, you probably know all that information already, having read a thousand times what you should be eating and how you should be moving. I’m not here to address diet and exercise strategies because, ultimately, such strategies don’t usually work, at least not in any lasting way. They fail because they address only the symptom of the problem—the excess weight itself—but not the underlying cause of it.

You may frame your overeating as a form of indulgence and desire run rampant, as we’ve been conditioned to see it. You might tell yourself that you overeat because you want more food; you don’t want to stop, it tastes so good. And while that may all be true, we often overeat or compulsively reach for food not because we really want the food, but because we don’t want to feel whatever we’re feeling in that moment. Let’s be honest: The fourth bowl of ice cream doesn’t really taste that good.

As with any addiction, we opt for a substance because we don’t want the experience we’re having, whether we’re feeling anxious, bored, sad, too happy, confused, overwhelmed, afraid, or any other hard-to- act emotion. The substance, in this case food, brings us relief from the feelings we don’t want and don’t know how to feel.

If you’re an overeater, your brain (through no fault of your own) has built a link between food and relief, between food and comfort. Therefore, when difficult emotions arise, your brain reacts by telling you that food is the solution; food will make your uncomfortable feelings go away; food is relief. It tells you this silently, without you even realizing. The impulse to reach for food when difficult feelings arise—or even threaten to arise—is unconscious and habitual; your brain has incorporated this link, and this belief that food is relief from suffering.

In order to break your addiction to food, you need to be willing to turn your focus away from food and the management of it, and toward the feelings that precede and trigger the eating—the internal experience that triggers the external response of opening the fridge . In order to do this, you must slow down the process that starts with unwanted feelings and ends with food, and negative feelings about your body and yourself.

When you feel the urge to overeat and check out on reality, you must choose to do something different, and remain awake and conscious to stay with yourself in your current reality. You can achieve this by being curious about exactly what’s happening inside you—before heading to the snack drawer.

Right there, in the eye of the storm, with the urge to check out and the uncomfortable feelings all raging, you must be willing to just stay still.

The fiercest and most courageous thing you can do in that moment is to ask yourself: “What am I experiencing right now that I want to get away from? What feelings are here that I don’t want to feel?” While chocolate may feel like the kindest thing you can do for yourself in that moment, it really isn’t. Listening to and caring about what you’re experiencing, and turning toward your heart, is true kindness and compassion.

The moment that matters most in breaking the cycle of overeating is the moment when you light it up with awareness, and thereby interrupt the link between the trigger and your habitual response. While it is counterintuitive and can feel scary to move toward what feels uncomfortable, it is precisely the process of getting to know your own experience that makes you feel better. And here’s the paradox: You feel better even if the feelings you discover are difficult. At the end of the day (and the beginning and middle, too), your willingness to bring your kind and non-judgmental attention to what’s happening inside your heart, head, and body is what’s necessary to break free from overeating or any other compulsive behavior.

An Exercise in Compassion

When you think about it, giving yourself cookies when what you really need is comfort is a bit like trying to use a banana to open a door lock; it’s simply the wrong tool for the task at hand. And yet, this is what we do over and over again; we feed our mouth when it’s our heart that needs our care. Over time, this odd and misaligned response to our own discomfort starts to feel normal; we mistake anesthetizing and medicating our discomfort for true relief and start to believe that food is what makes us feel better. But as we all know, the feelings we numb with food don’t go anywhere other than to sleep, temporarily. Food allows us to distract ourselves from our experience, which then creates a new experience that’s all about our weight and notions about why we can’t stop overeating. But whatever experience was there before we sedated and rerouted is still there; we haven’t actually taken care of it.

If you are an overeater, you have learned to moderate your feelings with food, when what they really need is your attention and compassion. And the sad thing is that your feelings have gotten accustomed to this kind of treatment—essentially, to being abandoned.

Chances are, there was a time, most likely when you were very young, when you tried to get real comfort for what you were feeling. You probably went to your caretakers for an emotional hug, or any kind of attuned response that would make your uncomfortable feelings feel better; you went looking for a key rather than a banana. But your caretakers may have been unavailable, uninterested, or unable to sit with you and your feelings, and thus unable to make you feel better. Your caretakers turned away from your feelings, and maybe even sent you away with cookies as a bizarre and unrelated replacement for the real comfort that you needed. They left you alone with your unprocessed and uncomfortable experience, without any tools to take care of it or help yourself. And so, you turned to food, which makes sense in a primitive brain. It’s smart and adaptive in that it makes the feelings go away—albeit temporarily—which is the goal.

But it’s also a heartbreaking process; it sends the message to your heart that it’s not going to get what it really needs, and will not be attended to with real attention and care—that the best it can hope for is the dullness of a food coma. If you can, imagine yourself at an age when you still believed you could get what you really needed from your caretakers; imagine the process of your heart slowly scarring over and giving up on real comfort, and surrendering to food as its most reliable alternative.

As the spring prepares to bloom, there is an opportunity to not just lose unwanted pounds and hang up the sweatpants, but also to encourage your own heart to bloom. You can make this a time to give yourself real comfort and real care. You can correct, if you will, that early experience when you learned that the best hope for feeling better was anesthesia.

Starting today, when you feel the urge to overeat or eat compulsively:

  1. Stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and place your hand on your heart or belly. Ask yourself: “What’s here that I don’t want to feel?”
  2. Imagine pulling up a chair to a child who’s hurting, and listening to what’s happening inside you in that moment. Don’t judge, shame, solve, or interpret the feelings that come; just listen and allow them to be there.
  3. With your hand still on your heart, remind yourself that your experience matters, and that you matter.
  4. Commit to staying right where you are for a minimum of three minutes; commit to building a new habit of keeping real company with your own experience.

If after this exercise, you still want to eat, that’s OK. But agree to take these steps before putting anything in your mouth. Find the courage not to abandon yourself—to stay still and offer yourself what you really need, and what you always needed.

This article was first published in Radiant Life magazine.

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