Although not all people fall into the criteria the psychiatric field outlines for eating disorders, which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge and compulsive overeating, most people have patterns of eating which fall along the disordered eating continuum.
At times, we may try to control our food intake or restrict certain foods, eat large amounts of food when we are not hungry, or have a distorted body image.
Think of the times when you have eaten in a trancelike, uncontrollable manner. During these situations, a temporary cognitive narrowing occurs in which your attention focuses on the immediate stimulus – the act of eating. This refocusing reduces your self-awareness not only from outer distractions, but more importantly, from inner negative or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
In a sense, we are removing a part of ourselves from reality. This feeling ‘as if we have been somewhere else’ is also experienced during times of intense or prolonged exercise, work, shopping or screen-time. In these situations, we become less conscious. However, why would we seek such unawareness?
Although the roots of eating disorders are a complex milieu of social, biological, emotional and psychological factors, statistics show about two-thirds of women who enter inpatient eating disorder treatment have a history of trauma or abuse. Studies report that people with either anorexia or bulimia are more likely to have experienced parents with alcoholism or substance abuse than are those in the general population.
Clearly, childhood abuse, dysfunctional households and extremely restrictive parenting styles impact our self-soothing coping mechanisms. These include not learning how to handle strong emotions, how to deal with stress and conflict, and how to acknowledge and communicate feelings. A sense of personal safety has often been shattered during childhood, with feelings of overwhelmment or abandonment accompanying such situations.
Our childhood need for trust, congruency, safe boundaries, security, affection, attention, validation and a sense of connection with others, and the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing all contribute to our sense of wholeness. These needs were often lacking in our lives and we developed coping mechanisms, most of them to our psychic detriment, to survive.
We outwardly compensate for our internal losses. Our eating, drinking, shopping and tv watching give us a temporary sense of control of our emotions and fulfill our need to feel grounded, secure, in control and soothed.
We need to restore both self and outer relatedness that was lacking in our childhoods. When we inwardly feel connected, loved and supported by fulfilling our own needs and accepting our feelings, then we no longer hunger for external sources, be it food, alcohol, shopping or others to fulfill our needs and to protect us from our emotions.
Start with the recognition of all feelings, then the acceptance of them. Look for healthier ways in dealing with stress and feelings of overwhelmment. Make a list of options besides food that bring a similar ‘high’ or enjoyment. Identify and challenge those inner voices that drive you to the kitchen.