Eating our Emotions

Diet strategies are always news and it seems we are hooked on learning more, and yet for thousands of years the problem for humans was not so much about over eating, it was more likely to be not having enough to eat, and the real challenge was staying alive.
Long term scarcity in supply of food is thought to be the reason we now store energy from food at a significantly quicker rate than we can lose it.

It seems the majority of us have evolved in a way that shifts the odds in favour of survival, but not everyone’s metabolism works in this way – you probably know at least one person who can eat more or less what they want and still look like a ‘runner bean’ or maybe you are one of those fortunate people? If not, you can comfort yourselves with the notion that should food ever be in short supply, those with an inclination to store fat, will survive longer than the skinnies amongst us!cookies
The reality of being spoilt for choice and bombarded with high fat/sugary foods, often with little or no nutritional value, means this biological gift of efficient storing is now working against us (at least in the western world); a point that was highlighted to me when I attended a three day course for therapists entitled ‘Emotional Eating’ run by Professor Julia Buckroyd.

Fortunately, Julia Buckroyd has also written a very helpful book about our relationship with food and specifically disordered eating. Her book Understanding Your Eating discusses the reasons behind those patterns which cause us distress (usually when they are experienced as beyond our control) whilst also shining some much needed light on why diets don’t usually work as a long-term solution to being overweight.

Many of us will recognise the process of being able to galvanize oneself for a short period of time to lose weight, only to put it all back on afterwards; it is extraordinarily wearing and  leaves some feeling desolate.

Weekly weigh-ins and support groups offer encouragement and support, but what happens after the target weight has been achieved and you no longer attend? Many people struggle to maintain their desired weight because their emotions are entangled with their eating habits, and unfortunately that issue is no more resolved at the end of the diet than it was at the outset.

“Are you eating your emotions?” is a question posed by Julia Buckroyd. If we reflect honestly on the feelings that have accompanied significant fluctuations in our weight, we may realise we have a habit of ‘eating our worries away’. When we find ourselves experiencing high levels of stress, over eating or not eating enough, can be a way of channelling our unmanageable feelings.

Having control over our food intake, when another significant aspect of our life is very much beyond our control may be an unconscious source of comfort – a coping mechanism of sorts, even if this means eating significantly more (or less) than our body requires.
Person eating in front of TVFor me that moment came when I had moved continents and found myself isolated, and unable to follow my profession. Suffering a loss of identity, the wakeup call came a few months into the posting after complaining to my family, “that American washing machine is shrinking all my clothes”. Hah! Everyone else looked blankly back at me; I was the only one struggling to do my jeans up and the washing machine was working just fine…

Eventually, our sea container arrived with our worldly goods and as I was reunited with my bathroom weighing scales, the unpalatable truth emerged – I had achieved a significant gain in weight without even noticing I was eating more than usual.

With hindsight, I can see I struggled to come to terms with my new situation and in the throes of culture shock and isolation I had taken to self soothing, with rather a lot of nibbles… The unspoken message rebounding in my head; I deserve it, don’t I?

It was helpful to acknowledge the relationship between my body and mind as symbiotic, remembering they cannot operate separately, particularly as my initial reaction to focus on calorie intake alone, was not helping.
In addition to  ‘eating my emotions’ another contributing factor was confusion over the food value of what I was consuming. If you have moved countries you will be familiar with the adjustment required when you first encounter the local supply of food in your new ‘home’.

A number of staples in my diet were different from those I was used to or simply not available in my local Houston supermarkets. I remember low fat/low sugar yoghurts seemed difficult to find and encountering more sugar in bread was another unexpected difference. I soon learned to live without the yoghurts and bread by supplementing with replacement items – I ditched my toast and marmalade and became a committed porridge eater for the rest of the posting! Big deal, not a great hardship… After all some of the new dishes I was trying were exciting and delicious (Tex-mex and prawn gumbo being two of them!).

More challenging, were the difficult feelings I struggled to manage. Eventually they needed acknowledging and reconciling, and with help I was able to do this. In the process of regaining my happiness and equilibrium my eating habits returned to normal and I enjoyed being more active again.

So do a few extra pounds really matter? Arguably not, unless you need to be slender for your work… a dancer perhaps. Most people would agree, that it begins to matter if the excess ballast you are carrying (or severe lack of it if you are significantly underweight) has become a threat to your health. In my case, it was simply another thing about myself that didn’t feel right at a time when everything else was unfamiliar. In short, the irony of putting on weight was that my sense of identity was further eroded by the reflection in the mirror – I did not feel ‘normal’ inside or out! So it felt important to get back to being my usual size.heart shaped food

I believe our identity is in part wrapped up in how we look and what our body and our clothes unconsciously tell the world about us. For example, we might be keeping people at a distance by being very large or unconsciously defending ourselves from intimacy? Perhaps we are undernourished and too thin, what does that say about our self worth if we are starving ourselves.?

These complex emotional issues involving misuse of food are explored by Julia Buckroyd as she aims to look at what many describe as an “ongoing battle with food”. I like the fact that her focus is ultimately on eating and not worrying about it and her findings are based on many years of research. Also included is a chapter specifically for men, who are often overlooked in terms of their specific issues around disordered eating.
Understanding Your Eating is available from Amazon.com
and if you would like to read more about my expat adventures (and what I learned), please dive into my memoir: An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.

Time to Decide?

Making New Year resolutions, such as giving up chocolate, aren’t usually my thing – they don’t sit well with my inner rebel. Plus I adore chocolate. However, I do secretly like to think about what I can change and achieve in the coming year, rather than what I’m giving up. I don’t always act on it, but this time last year, somewhere between waking up and actually opening my eyes one morning, I knew I could not ignore the nagging voice inside my head any longer; it was time to decide whether to honour a commitment I made to myself several years ago. The decision required was whether to finish the book I had already written and hoped I was not far from completing. It had been set aside in a drawer for over a year and was all but forgotten, except by me.

woman deciding

An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity is about my personal experience of getting depressed and getting well. Not sounding very cheerful? There’s a wee bit more to it than that of course – for people to want to purchase my book I knew it needed to be an entertaining read about expat life, with all the highs and lows. So, although my ‘story’ was true, my goal was to capture the drama, humour, characters and set them against an interesting backdrop. Most importantly it needed to be useful, such a benign little word, but that was my motivation for writing it; to make my valuable, hard won, painful learning, available to others in a way that would be easily accessible in the form of ‘a good read’. Whether I achieved my goal is for others to judge.

Fortunately, by this time last year much of the graft was done, I already had the potential backing of a publisher; I just needed to finish the job. What was actually stopping me doing it was a road block of fear. As I say, I’d been procrastinating for over a year, trying to weigh up if it would be okay for me to reveal myself in such a public way. I didn’t see myself as depressive so how was it going to be, admitting to the world that I had really struggled? Even if I did survive and learn from it.

I brought to mind my earlier inspiration for writing; if I could avoid being seriously depressed until my forties, then surely it could happen to anyone? As a therapist, I had understood some of what was happening to me and yet could not by an act of sheer will alone, get myself out of the mire. Ashamed and guilty as an expat wife, I felt I should surely be counting my blessings (I knew there were many – goddamit I could see them with my own eyes, I just couldn’t feel them) and fell victim to the black dog, Churchill’s apt description for depression.black dog

The reasons for my descent become clear as you read my memoir. Lonely and isolated, immobilised by my own frustrations, particularly at not being able to work, and faced with the inevitable culture shock of a new posting, I was stalled. There were too many losses, too quickly, and the plusses of living in a different place just weren’t enough (at least not initially, not this time) and I began to wonder who the hell I was. The term for it is identity loss and it can happen to anyone.

Thankfully, last New Year, once I had rekindled my passion for sharing my experience and how I got through that emotional crisis, I was finally able to put aside my anxieties and get stuck into finishing the book. Ten months later to my great delight An Inconvenient Posting was published (in October) by Summertime Publishing.

Is there something you would like to move forward with or change in 2013? Do you have any mental road blocks or potholes? You could try breaking things down, distilling the issue into a few key actions, or make ‘bring ups’ in your diary, schedule yourself some time to work on it. Ask yourself what would help me decide? How can I make it happen? What is the worst that can happen?!

It helped me to talk through my dilemma with people whose judgement I trusted. Perhaps if you can’t think of anyone you might seek some professional advice. Not forgetting there is so much available on the web nowadays that is free. For example, if I’d had blogs such as Adventures In Expat Land and Expatwomen or wordgeyser with all their resources to draw on, it would have helped me better understand my isolation and my situation. For me attending the Families in Global Transition Conference gave a boost and the opportunity to share and network on similar issues. This year’s ‘FIGT’ conference is all planned and ready for people to sign up and go along. Hope to see you there…

I digress! If there is something you would like to achieve in 2013 however small or grandiose, might I suggest you spend half an hour making a clear and detailed plan of what you want to do. Its such a simple thing and I certainly don’t mean to patronise anyone, but If we can just get past the challenge of the blank page staring right back at us, the results can be so effective.Replacement-of-Windows-Notepad

Sometimes we do need to take time, weigh up the pros and cons of a dilemma, let it ferment so we are sure; that’s not wrong. Equally, its good to come to a decision after a while, even acknowledging there are downsides, it may still be the right decision. And if its not, you can decide to forget about it and move on with the knowledge that you thought it through. Good luck with trying and a happy New Year to you whatever you are doing.