Is overeating just a habit?
Most people who come to see me, who are frustrated with the compulsion to overeat, ask
“Isn’t it just a habit?”
As if that’s an end to the subject.
It is a habit. Overeating is usually something that was learned very early on, and has been practiced (perhaps interspersed with periods of dieting) for most of our lives. It is a well entrenched and well practiced pattern or pathway in our brains.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no psychology or emotion attached to the compulsion, or habit, of overeating.
Nor does it mean it’s impossible to break.
If you’ve read the self help, apparently a habit can take anything from 21 days to 6 months to break.
There’s a lot of great literature and YouTube videos on using ‘tricks’ to break the habit of overeating.
If you’ve tried these, and gone back to the habit of overeating, or feel resistant to even trying, it probably means there’s a psychology and emotion enmeshed into your habit too. This takes some understanding to undo and replace.
Soothing ourselves with the habit of overeating
It’s a fact that junk food gives us a dopamine hit (pleasure or ‘high’ feeling) and a seratonin release (soothing or numbing). This is a highly addictive experience. Therefore, the more we do it, the more we want to do it. The advertisers are aware of this.
Even if your habit never began as a way to feel better because something was stressing you out, it could turn into this quickly, with the accidental pleasure of associating emotional pain with the pleasure of eating. We get easily hooked on the numbing or pleasurable effect of so many things; from television, to the internet, to alcohol and drugs. Who hasn’t mindlessly lost an hour or two to Facebook or Youtube?
If you’ve seen my video or taken my quiz, you’ll be starting to see that you might reach for the junk food when something bothers you; when you’re stressed at work, bored with your daily life, frustrated that your partner didn’t do the house chores, angry that a driver sat in your way down a narrow lane, sad you’re alone on a Saturday night, worried about money, tired from a long day looking after everyone, or sometimes even when happy.
Signs that you might be overeating to feel safe, as well as a response to having a feeling:
- Looking forward to (or obsessing over) eating, as your only pleasure
- Carrying food around, just in case it’s needed at some point. Even if you’re going to a catered event
- Panicking if you think you won’t be able to access food
- Never leaving food on the plate
- Eating quickly
- Drifting off in thought or worry while eating
- Eating alone because of shame and embarrassment
- Feeling guilty when eating
When we overeat as a habitual response to any experience or emotion that we’re feeling, we unconsciously believe that we need the food to feel safe, to feel normal, or to feel ok within ourselves.
You won’t give up the ‘safety’ habit of overeating, until you feel safe
This is why it feels impossible to override the physiological craving for junk food.
Why would you not have the thing that you have told yourself you need, to feel ok?
I’ve seen countless people get stuck in confusion when we talk about learning to treat themselves in a better way. They are confused about whether overeating is giving themselves what they want, and treating themselves well. Because ever since they were young, they’ve reached for the custard creams in order to feel safe.
But, as you know from the guilt and disgust that you feel, it isn’t making you feel safe in the long run at all. It just soothes you in that momentary fix.
So I know that there is no way you’re going to give that up without finding something better to replace it.
Therefore, I would never ask you to stop eating. You will cut back naturally when you feel safe enough to do so.
Finding the feeling of safety inside you
At the moment you are looking outside of yourself for something to make you feel better, or to feel safe. This is the same with any compulsion or addiction (TV, internet, love, over tidying, working too hard, always being busy or distracted, as well as the well know ones of alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, sex…)
Finding safety inside you is a gradual process of learning:
- Learning what it is that you feel, so that you can start responding to what you really need, instead of ignoring it.
- Trusting your instincts
- Studying techniques that encourage safety
- Being compassionate with yourself
- Exploring your blocks to self compassion and how you put yourself down
- Increasing your tolerance of emotion
- Learning to be more hopeful, positive, optimistic
- Connecting with people more
- Building self confidence
- Creating boundaries that support what you need
- Finding peace
- Making informed decisions
These are skills which are learned gradually. They feel rewarding, empowering and a tremendous relief to discover. Some take courage. But, again, you won’t face fear until you feel safe enough to do so.
Increasing tolerance for feeling
We could all do with increasing our tolerance of difficult feeling.
Next time you feel slightly stressed, see if you can just observe the feeling inside your body as something you’re experiencing.
Tell yourself that you are experimenting with being able to observe and tolerate this stress.
Notice what the stress feels like physically, and see if you can just tolerate that feeling, or increase your telerance for it slightly. What would that take? Breathing? Allowing? Expanding? Moving? Sighing? Making noise?
Or, from a step away, be observant of how hard it is for you to tolerate, and what makes it so hard.
Be interested in yourself. You are fascinating; all human beings are on the inside!
This may switch your focus from needing to fix it. It doesn’t need to be fixed or squashed. It’s just a human energetic experience of a combination of chemical release and nerve stimulation. It may have an important message, telling you you’re not happy about something that needs addressing. Or it also might be another habitual response developed a long time ago.