Making Friends With Food
By Traci Baxendale Ball
Food can be a source of great pleasure - central to celebration and ritual in all cultures. However, food is a source of stress for many. Re-learning healthy eating habits is essential for physical and psychological health if food has become a complex issue in your life, fraught with tension and pain. Here we describe some struggles you might notice with food if your eating has become disordered.
The production of cortisol (a stress hormone) increases as stress and trauma stack up over the lifespan. Cortisol increases overall appetite, late night binging and carb cravings. These habits, once established, are difficult to break. Below you’ll find some examples of over eating:
- Comfort eating. Food intake becomes a response to stress or a coping skill. This leads to weight gain, and over time, a higher weight set point - further amplifying self-loathing in a culture that bullies persons they consider ‘fat’. Body hate (the antithesis of body love) fuels depression and anxiety.
- Purposeful (sometimes unconscious) altering of physical appearance through overeating. This may be an attempt to mask sexuality or gender following sexual assault. This can be seen as a person’s attempt to not be seen as a sexual being.
- Binging (eating a large amount of food) and purging (vomiting), or use of laxatives.
2. Limiting food
- Obsessive thinking and rumination about food often has the paradoxical effect of restriction or starvation. Behavior is aimed at severely limiting calorie intake or types of food. Example: only eating foods that start with a “C”.
- A response to the need to exert control when the self has been violated, dominated, or intruded on in some way. May occur as a result of perfectionism or cultural pressure to be thin. Stigma occurs across all contexts including health providers who confuse thin with healthy.
- Purposeful distortion and emaciation of physical-sexual self to avoid further sexual attention and assault.
- A desire to be invisible. A psychological mechanism for ‘shrinking’ the self.
- An attempt to avoid or decrease menses due to phobia, fear, or mental distress.
- Slow suicide.
- Food becomes a suitable anesthesia for emotional and physical (SOMATIC) pain, producing a strong and predictable opiate-like response in the body.
4. Food and family misery
- The kitchen or dining room is the setting for familial stress and trauma for many people. You must recognize the patterns and generational experiences that have occurred around meal time or the dinner table as you make friends with food again. You must be aware of how family gatherings and rituals became defined by violence and shaming. You may have been picked on by your family for your weight, or what you ate at the table. You may have been forced to eat too much food, or food that made you sick. Awareness (mindfulness), working through, and eventual closure can help restore the pleasure in eating.
5. Self-punishment, self-blame
- Food is a handy self-harm tool for survivors who are intent on self-punishing as a result of cognitive distortions and self-blame.
6. Body dysmorphia
- By definition, mental health issues and stress affect the way you think about yourself, see yourself, the way you connect to your body, and how you view your physical appearance. Food becomes a way for you to mediate those distorted perceptions.
7. Food and poverty
- There may have been a shortage of food when you were a child. Due to poverty or neglect you may have had a low-quality diet that set up eating habits you are still dealing with today. You may have had your food restricted, altered, or there may have been harsh punishment around food/meals.
- Survivors may have experienced poverty, neglect and/or lack of food in their personal history. Hunger and the emotional/physical experience of it can be traumatic in itself. ‘Feeding up’ is a term coined by this author to help adults understand gorging behaviors after a childhood marked by hunger.
8. Food and trauma
- Food may have been involved when the survivor experienced trauma or witnessed/was told about a traumatic event. Food trauma can be coded in sensory memory in various ways – smells, taste, texture, sound related to the food.
- Food may be directly involved in your trauma story, and you may experience this via flashbacks and intrusive memories.
9. Food as an outlet for rage, shame, disappointment
- Food may be chosen as the survivor’s only weapon to express powerful emotions that have not found another outlet.
10. Anxiety and depression manifested
- Appetite, GI distress, weight gain, weight loss, as well as the experience of constriction in the body or bloating are common for persons experiencing depression and anxiety.
11. Food fear
- Survivors may express a phobia or fear of food.
- The irrational fear may be that the food or some foods holds some mystical power.
- The irrational fear may or may not be related to weight gain.
- It is possible to be so disconnected from our body (through mechanisms of dissociation or depersonalization) that we literally forget to eat.
Recognizing these food issues impact our ability to eat healthfully is the first step in recovery. Through treatment, support, and self-help, it is possible to sever the connection between food and stress/trauma. Food can once again be viewed as life sustaining and enjoyable.