I used to cope with life with food. If I was upset, I’d drown my sorrows in double-fudge ice cream, cereal or whatever else was in my cupboards or fridge. I expected food to help. Or maybe I didn’t know what to expect, and figured food would work for now.
It would become an inevitable cycle: I’d eat to ease the pain. Then, I’d get upset with myself for turning to food for comfort and for overeating. The next day, I’d try to be good and restrict what I ate, hoping my willpower wouldn’t fail me. But, ultimately, I couldn’t “be good” for long, and so the cycle continued.
In hindsight, it was probably a combination of wanting relief and being hungry or unsatisfied because I didn’t give myself unconditional permission to eat, a term nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch use in their excellent book on intuitive eating.
When we get stressed out, many of us seek solace and support in food. Whether we undereat or overeat, the result is usually the same: Even if we feel temporary relief, in the end, we feel worse, ashamed and more stressed out.
I think part of the problem is not knowing how to deal with stress safely and successfully. Or maybe you know about various healthy coping skills but just don’t practice them for one reason or another.
Today, I’m pleased to present my interview with Lyndsay Elliott, Ph.D, who specializes in eating disorders and body image issues. Below, Dr. Elliott talks about healthy coping skills, managing stress, communicating with others and more.
Many people turn to binge eating, restricting calories or other disordered eating behaviors because it’s the only or one of the only ways they know how to cope when stress strikes. Can you talk about healthy coping strategies that can be used to replace these unhealthy ones?
First, you have to identify the triggers to that stress, and underlying causes. After those are recognized, it is easier to create coping skills that help to decrease the associated anxiety. There are usually several strategies that have to be utilized before the person can find one that works to feel some relief.
Often, there is some obsession/compulsivity that is making the stress more worrisome, and finding distractions can be enormously beneficial. Some other coping strategies can be: assertiveness, decreasing avoidance, increasing self-care, acceptance, journaling, getting more rest, terminating or creating new relationships, etc.
Anxiety and depression often fuel disordered eating. What are some ways we can cope with anxiety and depression?
Again, through an individualized plan depending on the triggers and causes. If the anxiety and depression is interfering with functioning, medication management is often considered. The meds are not a cure for the mood symptoms, yet often gives relief for the person to utilize the coping skills that they are creating for themselves.
Many times we are unaware of how stressed out we really are. How can we become more attuned to our stressors and manage them?
Many people are so overwhelmed with daily responsibilities that it is so difficult to know what is going on in any given moment. People then utilize food as a way to cope with that stress, or to avoid it completely. When you prioritize those things that you need to manage, the stress can be significantly decreased. It takes lots of practice to get re-centered with your body to understand how the stress is affecting it, and how to change it.
By taking back control of those things that you can manage (i.e., daily tasks), you feel more in control and will likely feel less anxiety about your “to do” list. That grounding then allows you to better handle other stressors in your life that you have less control over.
Some people turn to food when they’re angry, upset or frustrated with someone else, because they have difficulty expressing their emotions to others. Can you mention a few ways we can open up and communicate well with others?
By directly communicating your needs, you allow others the opportunity to respond. It is amazing what can occur when you are just honest about what you want! If someone has hurt you, explain why using “I” messages about your feelings without attacking the other person. If that person is unable to recognize or respond appropriately, then you can make a decision about how you would like that relationship to continue.
I encourage patients to examine if the relationship is adding value to their lives, and if not, what do they want to do about improving it? If there is little to no value there, sometimes letting things go, and mourning the loss can be incredibly healing.
What are some of your favorite resources on coping and stress management?
The Power of a Positive No by William Ury.
Anything else you’d like readers to know about coping, stress management or disordered eating?
Absolutely! I talk with patients (and their families) in my practice about the importance of having FUN. I am always blown away by how many patients are so stuck in their behaviors, that “fun” has been entirely left out, or they do not feel deserving enough to do so. Adding some enjoyment can provide an outlet for relief as well as a way to reconnect with those that we care about, that is not related to the eating disordered behaviors.
In addition, eating disorders are very complicated and individualized, and this information only provides a small summary of what would be explored or possibly used in treatment.
Thanks so much, Dr. Elliott, for the interview!
How do you cope with stress? What are some of your favorite coping strategies? I think learning and practicing how to cope in healthy ways is so important, and I’d like to have more experts weigh in on this. Any questions you’d like me to ask in future interviews?
Update: Check out my guest post today on the fantastic blog Weighing the Facts, which provides information and inspiration on eating disorder recovery.