When food is your primary soother

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with emotional eating. Eating naturally offers a fundamental source of soothing, warmth and comfort. It’s pleasurable to eat and to revel in appreciating favourite foods or to celebrate and enjoy a delicious meal with others.

But when food has become your primary or only turn-to, to soothe anxiety and boost mood, it can be problematic. It may lead to disordered eating behaviours, which ultimately will not support your mental well-being.

Your ability to deal with your emotions in a healthy way, will be impacted by your early life experiences.

The 'stiff upper lip'

Growing up in the UK, the British people are well known (at least in days gone by) for having the ‘stiff upper lip’.  ‘Everything is fine,’ people say, when heartbreaking tragedy has struck the family and unbearable grief is clearly leaking from every pore. 

Emotions were often swept under the carpet; in the desperate hope they would somehow disappear. Understandably, they may have later exploded out with volcanic force, as the pressure cooker of feeling, reached overload. Consequently, in many families, emotions then become feared with trepidation and the ‘benefits’ of the stiff upper lip were reinforced.

If you’re feeling proficient in your emotional expression, you may have invested in personal development and therapy. And/or you may have grown up in an environment that was supportive and safe for dealing with emotions. It may have felt a calm and secure space, where there was time to listen to one another (at least some of the time) and where feelings were validated and accepted. 

This doesn’t always happen though. Home environments can sometimes be abusive or traumatic, which understandably impacts your ability to deal with emotions effectively. But interestingly, you don’t have to have experienced this to struggle with managing your feelings.

You might have come from an extremely kind and caring home, where you knew wholeheartedly that you were loved, but the emotional environment was a little amiss.

Carers may have been dealing with life stressors and juggling multiple issues. You may have had a sibling that needed intense support, or the family might have faced a shattering bereavement. Your parent may have been struggling to manage their own feelings and only just keeping their head above water. 

This may have inadvertently led to your emotions being overlooked, leaving you to find your own way of coping through the jungle of life. You may have become proficient at putting on a happy face for others because you loved them and wanted to protect them from your pain when you noted their struggle. Maybe, food then became the coping life-raft, when waters become turbulent. It offered soothing and emotional calmness, when you were feeling alone.

Two children sitting by window

Importantly, you can have compassion for how your parents or caregivers were coping, due to their circumstances, as they were likely doing the best that they could at the time. And you can acknowledge where your emotional needs were not met and then consider how you take care of yourself moving forward.

By learning to experience the range of human emotions, can lead to a deeper sense of contentment and better mental well-being.

Common barriers in families dealing with emotions:

  • You are told that you are being silly and not to make a fuss. "Other people have it worse, be positive."
  • You are told what to do with well-intentioned advice, rather than your feelings being heard.
  • The home environment is busy or stressfully chaotic, with little space to talk about feelings.
  • Others in the family vent feelings loudly and openly; you minimise your distress as feel that your need is less.
  • You are shamed or criticised for expressing your feelings. 

If you experienced some of these common patterns, your tendency may be towards shutting down or being dissociated from your feelings. You might display a ‘coping front’ in public, whereas experiencing very different moods behind closed doors. 

You may not feel or trust your emotions and will unconsciously seek to numb or distract from them; this process being largely unconscious.

As a child this would have been a survival strategy, and although it served you then, it’s not so healthy to adopt this as an adult.

To break free from using food as your primary emotional regulator, you may need a safe space to get in touch with, and express feelings openly. This might feel understandably daunting at first, venturing into unchartered territory, but it’s a vital part of healing.

Counselling can offer a safe space to help you get in touch with your feelings and yourself, through learning self-trust, self-understanding and awareness. When you disconnect from negative feelings, you lose joy and happiness too, often feeling numb. By learning to experience the range of human emotions, this can lead to a deeper sense of contentment and better mental well-being.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Cambridge, CB1

Written by Harriet Frew

Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @the_eating_disorder_therapist; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist

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