Compulsive Eating as a Coping Mechanism

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Reader’s Question

I am frustrated by how I keep eating and eating without stopping. This problem began when my mother divorced my father because he sexually abused my older sister. I am always fighting with my mother and think that she hates me because I remind her of my father. I’m really frustrated and always seem to resort to food to handle all of this. In the meantime, I am getting fatter and fatter but can’t seem to stop eating. Is there help out there for me?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you have developed a pattern of compulsive eating to cope with your upsetting family issues. I say this because you mention how the eating problem began following your parents’ divorce — which, notably, happened after your father sexually abused your sister — and then you go on to explain how you perceive your mother hates you because you remind her of your father. This is all really painful stuff and, undoubtedly, has taken a toll on your self-esteem.

We are meant to eat only when our bodies tell us we are hungry, but in our modern world, it is all too easy to eat for reasons other than hunger. The availability of ready-made foods and tasty fast food options makes it simple for us to eat whenever we want, even if we are not really hungry. This accounts for the rising levels of obesity (in the U.S., at least), and partially explains how food can take on an addictive quality, much like drugs and alcohol do for some. The foods that we generally develop “addictions” to are usually ones that are unhealthful for us in large proportions. Think about it: you do not hear about people struggling to curtail their temptation for broccoli or leafy greens, right? Instead, we try to refrain from eating too many sweets and fatty foods. And it is neurochemical brain changes that occur after eating these foods that may precipitate a compulsive eating problem. When we eat a delicious candy bar, for example, we have increases in feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. When we are stressed, anxious, depressed, etc., a candy bar can serve an immediate Prozac-like effect.

In other words, it is not uncommon for people to use eating and food to manage emotions. The problem occurs when this means of coping becomes a primary way of handling difficult emotional states or stressors. Sometimes this takes the form of repeated overeating. I.e., we may develop a tendency to eat beyond the point of fullness, or eat when we are not truly hungry. However, overeating can quickly evolve into an eating disorder such as binge eating disorder, where a person episodically eats beyond the point of fullness, and feels uncomfortably full as a result, yet feels incapable of stopping or controlling his/her food intake.

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When we rely primarily on food like this, we lose healthier ways of regulating our emotions and instead make ourselves emotionally “numb” with food. We become divorced from our emotional states, and physical feelings of fullness tend to override our emotions and feelings. This is the essence of disordered eating — using food (or food avoidance, as with anorexia) to cope with emotional difficulties — and, as with binge eating, it can lead to associated weight gain as well as feelings of shame, low-self-esteem, and self-loathing. This sets up a vicious cycle of sorts: where low self-esteem may initially fuel overeating and binge eating, this means of coping and the associated weight gain cause you to feel even worse about yourself, leading you to keep eating in order to cope.

So how do you stop this compulsive cycle? I would suggest finding a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and family issues. The therapist can help you uncover the emotional issues that fuel your compulsive eating and then help you find healthier means of managing these emotional issues. Depending on your situation, the therapist may also refer you to a dietician or nutritionist to help you normalize your eating patterns and re-learn how to listen to your body’s hunger signals. The therapist can also help you re-learn the skill of listening to your body by guiding you to be more mindful of your body’s internal states. As overeating and compulsive eating are often used to manage stress and anxiety, the therapist will work with you to find healthier means of reducing your anxiety and managing your emotions. Furthermore, as depression often underlies eating problems, and may contribute to your compulsive eating, the therapist can hopefully help identify and treat the depression as well.

Most importantly, however, a therapist can help you find ways to work through and resolve the emotional issues, such as low self-esteem, that fuel your eating issues. He/she can help you process emotions about your family situation and may even encourage you to express related emotions in creative ways that feel right to you (like painting journaling, writing poems, etc.). Although you are struggling now, please know that hope is right around the corner. By finding a therapist you feel you can trust, you can ultimately work toward stopping the compulsive eating cycle and can begin to feel better about yourself.

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