Stress, panic, fear and negative thinking motivate many people to comfort eat. For some, it's a normal reaction to a bad day. We all do it. But it becomes a problem if the intensity, duration and amounts of food increase or if you become continuously depressed.
Comfort eating turns into a disorder called binge eating if you are overeating at least two times a week for three months. Binges can often lead to bulimia, where people compulsively overeat and then purge by vomiting or by overusing laxatives on an almost daily basis.
Food is a pleasure
Food, since the day we are born, is not only a survival need but also a way of nurturing, comforting and enjoying ourselves. It is one of the pleasures of life, a way to gain social approval and a conduit to entertaining and connecting with others.
In fact, the focus of family life and friendship often revolves around the kitchen table. It's only natural to associate food with happy and comforting feelings. As mothers we often use food or sweets as a reward for our children, conditioning them into rating certain foods very highly.
In fact, some of use still treat ourselves with food: If you jog for five kilometres you will reward yourself with a chocolate bar or a slice of cake - "I deserve it" you say to yourself. Many of my friends claim that the only reason they exercise is that they can eat more of what they like!
What is comfort eating?
It's really about emotions. We hate feeling empty, lonely, down, heart sore or bored. It's easier to distract ourselves than really feel what's going on inside. So we'll reach for a chocolate bar, a packet of chips or some ice cream.
Comfort eating is an excellent distraction and so is the cycle of bingeing. You binge to "fill" yourself up and suppress the uncomfortable feelings on the inside. It satisfies your emptiness temporarily and allows you to shift your attention from the real problem to food.
Your brain associates food to happy times, rewards and fullness. You crave this and hence you crave to eat. Chocolates and carbohydrates do stimulate feelings of contentment physiologically. Yet only for a little while - well at least until the guilt and self loathing sets in.
This well trodden cycle of highs and lows is probably familiar: feeling low, craving happiness, eating food and then feeling guilty.
It's a cycle that also distracts you from the real core issues, like feeling lonely, worthless or trapped in an unhealthy relationship.
What causes it?
If you are having the odd binge once or twice a month on snack foods and you feel in control of the pattern, then a bad day or PMS is probably the cause. In this instance don't worry about it - rather savour the delights.
But if the binges are necessary, and are coupled with a strong craving, then you will have to start looking deeper.
Understanding the causes is like looking at a multi-story building. There are layers upon layers of possible causes. We are often unaware of the basement where our core feelings and beliefs of self, lie.
The floors represent different aspects of our person. Beyond the structure, there are things that go on inside the building that becomes the life of the building. In this example, these events are the "triggers" that may motivate us to crave comfort foods.
It is easy to see the triggers and even understand the structures of our personality, but getting into the basement, or into the core of ourselves takes patience and often requires skilled help.
Need help? Visit the Recovery Space for great advice here.