January blues and comfort eating

So February has finally arrived. How was January for you? Did you feel blue on Blue Monday? Was the month a low point? Isn't it kind of ironic that we make resolutions to get healthy and proactive at the most depressing time of the year? Wouldn't it be better to start making plans for how to look after ourselves with Winter's challenges, so that we can rebuild our resources first?


One of the biggest challenges for a lot of us at this time of year is comfort eating.

My personal view is that diets and 'self-discipline' are short-lived and ineffective. For most people who binge eat, this restriction can cause a rebellion, or a further feeling of pressure, failure, or overwhelm, and so more comfort eating. It's a bit of a vicious cycle really.

Books like 'The Mindfulness Based Eating Solution' and 'The No Diet Diet' can help by encouraging you to become more engaged with what and how you're eating, but generally, I think all choices come down to self-esteem. The only way to make more long-term changes is to address how we feel about ourselves.

The comfort eating cycle

Take Karen, for example.

Karen runs her own design company. She's got a sharp creative mind, is good with customers and works hard to meet her deadlines, impress her clients, and secure new ones, on a daily basis.

She works long hours, so she eats whatever she can during the day. Sometimes this isn't the healthiest or the cheapest option.

Sometimes she gets complaints from the customers. You know those types, who always seem to demand more than most people? Karen finds it hard to stand up to these clients because she thinks she needs the custom. So she resentfully eats a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar instead and gets on with the new amends that her client is demanding.

When she gets home, she's so exhausted that all she wants to do is stop. She may even rush to get home so that she can sit in front of the TV with a takeaway, microwave dinner or a bunch of snacks. She dips in and out of snacks until she's ready for bed. She might not do the washing or cleaning or prep for the next day, in favour of zoning out in front of the telly.

She may catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror, at some point, and be disappointed with what she sees. She knows she's putting on weight, but hasn't got the time, energy or skill to know how to address this, so she thinks about the chocolate chip biscuits in her cupboard, as she tells herself how awful she is.

Often she goes to bed with a sore mouth, full or bloated feeling, and may not sleep well as a result. Then she starts again the next day, grabs a coffee and sugary snack for breakfast, and rushes to her place of work to meet demands again.

Is any of this familiar? Maybe you even feel a knot in your stomach or tightness of breath reading this? Can you see how Karen squashed how she felt all day long?

What can you do?

I'm not saying you have to quit your job, relax all day and attend to how you feel all of the time. But Karen is a talented, beautiful woman who is selling herself short by running herself into the ground to meet other people's demands.

Karen could really do well if she were to stop and think about what she's doing, to think about why she's feeding herself so badly and feeling so awful about herself. She could learn a kinder, more productive way to treat herself, and learn to stand up for her time, health and enjoyment of life. She could learn to honour the gifts that she has to bring to people.

Like any new skill, it takes time to learn these things and involves facing obstacles on the way, but it is possible.

I heard recently that any practice of mindful self-responsibility and self-awareness increases the thickness of the sheath around our neurones. What that means is the more we think about and practice self-responsibility and self-care, the more we can change our well-grooved patterns of self-harm. There's literally a change in our brains when we do this!

The thing I've observed with my clients who overeat is that after exploring their patterning, they naturally start to choose healthier options. As they learn self-respect, they gradually replace the anaesthetic of chocolate with something that makes them feel good in a different way, more alive. Self-compassion reduces self-harm.

I know this will seem impossible for a lot of you and maybe you can't imagine it right now, so I encourage you to take small steps. This is good advice if you want to achieve anything in life. If you want to start losing weight, just start with the smallest first step. Commit to just going outside the door, rather than planning a 10 ten-mile hike.

In terms of understanding what's going on for you with food, next time you put something you know is not good for you into your mouth, just see if you can identify the last feeling you remember having, and see if you can spot how you put yourself down. Then maybe ask yourself how you could be kinder to yourself instead.

You may instantly be able to identify that you're angry with your spouse for not doing the dishes, or you may realise that it's been a long time since you knew how you felt. In which case, how can you choose what's good for you?

It's all good information that can be worked with. One step at a time, with compassion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS
Written by Shelley Treacher, Therapy for anxiety, depression & relationship difficulties.
Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS

I work individually and in groups with people who overeat or binge eat. I have a group for the 'Understanding Your Eating' programme, coming up in January. I also have a meet-up support group. You are welcome to join either.

Shelley Treacher MA. MBACP accred. www.bristolcounselling.co.uk. www.meetup.com/Bristol-Understanding-Your-Eating/

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