I was in a car accident recently. It wasn’t a big one and thank God no one was hurt. However, accidents are jolting and can make us feel very vulnerable. After the initial shock, I wanted to eat. For me and for many of us, food calms and soothes. It transports us from our fears, our anxieties, our angers, our discontentments, to a place where nothing bad can touch us – at least for a few moments – or so we believe. (I forgot to tell you, I didn’t eat.)

The origin of my emotional eating goes back many decades. I was a baby when Dr. Spock was telling mothers to feed their babies on a regular schedule and that healthy babies were round and plump. (No science back then about how fat cells are formed in infancy and can plague us for life!) So family lore goes that I was a finicky eater. My glamorous mother would try all kinds of tactics to make me laugh (including putting a mop on her head) so she could shove a spoonful of food into my open mouth. I learned very early that it pleased my mother if I ate. So I did. As I got older, and fell off my bike, got teased at school (for my weight), or had a fight with my sister, I was offered a cookie to make me feel better. So I made some important, albeit dangerous associations very early. Eating makes the people you love happy. And food heals hurts, both physical and emotional. (Can you relate?)

For many of us, we can make a connection between our eating behaviors now and what we learned in childhood. Pick up your own historical thread and follow it back in time. What beliefs about food did you learn? Some of my clients tell me that when they were little, food, like love, was rationed. The refrigerator and the cabinets were locked. They felt deprived and bereft. Others remember being the only ones at the dinner table with a “low cal” meal. They too felt deprived and many became sneak eaters. Yet others report turning to food for comfort. Their lives were filled with the chaos and crisis of some kind of abuse or addiction. So many of us learned that for a few moments in time, food could lift us from our circumstances to a place of comfort and love. Geneen Roth eloquently explores this connection in her book When Food Is Love.

Okay. So here we are with that very powerful association. What do we do now? We blame our mothers and we keep on eating. (Just kidding!) No, we learn to “remother” ourselves. We go back to basics and teach ourselves (as if we were little children again) that food is fuel for the body. We eat only when we are hungry, which is the body’s way of signaling that it needs refueling. And…we find other ways to calm and soothe ourselves – without automatically turning to food.

So here’s your homework. Make a list of ten things that calm and soothe you, other than food. Deep breathing should be #1 on the list. (There is no better anti-anxiety medication in the world than oxygen getting into the diaphragm.) Make the list realistic, things you can do within your means and lifestyle. Hugging my dog and my husband work great for me, as does going for a run. Your list should include things you can do right now (breathe, call a friend, have a good cry), and later (take a bubble bath, watch your favorite DVD, plan a vacation).

The next time you’re upset and get the urge (you know, the urge to eat when you’re not hungry) pull out your list. Start at the top and work down. Generally (and research supports this), if we can distract ourselves for ten minutes, the urge will pass. And we’ll be so proud of ourselves. We calmed and soothed ourselves - without turning to food. Try it!

More next month on emotional eating.

Author's Bio: 

Ilene Leshinsky is a licensed, clinical social worker with 15 years of counseling experience. In her Plattsburgh-based private practice, she works with women who want more joy and fulfillment in their lives. Ilene’s BodySense program is open to women of all ages who are in conflict with weight, eating, and body image. Look for her BodySense one day retreat at the end of October. She can be reached at 518-570-6164, ilene@primelink1.net, or www.ileneleshinsky.com.