Eating is by far the most common coping mechanism that exists in our modern society, undoubtedly for the easy access that we have to different foods and the effectiveness of certain foods in numbing ourselves. However, the main reason why we use food to cope is that we learned it from others, because that’s what mom did, and that’s what the neighbor kid did, and that’s what they taught us to do too.
What is a coping mechanism? It is a strategy that we have adopted in order to avoid facing a situation that we are unprepared or unequipped to handle. A coping mechanism helps us to move on with our everyday lives despite something unpleasant, disturbing or horrible that is happening in our lives.
For instance, a child living in an abusive home might still be going to school and go about doing all of her daily duties without interruption, because she has learned to cope, for example by creating a fantasy world. Indeed, learning to cope can be a life savior in a moment when we do not have the means to improve our situation or do not have the mental or emotional capacity to face it. A war veteran usually copes with his trauma, until the moment that he is back home in a safe environment, ideally surrounded by loved ones. Only then the trauma starts to surface and can be healed.
Most people are not aware that they use food to cope. They simply crave things and mostly make their food choices unconsciously from a place of wanting relief, instead of questioning why they crave certain foods and then choosing what would be the most beneficial for their bodies.
Everybody knows that certain foods are unhealthy, and everybody knows that eating more fruits and vegetables and less fat and sugar is better for our heath. Yet everybody keeps choosing foods over and over again that damage our health, and we do it even against our own conscious will. We go on diets determined to lose weight or improve our health, only to fall back into the old ways the moment the craving hits.
So what exactly are we coping with? We eat to fill the void within ourselves that is left behind from lack of intimacy, from not being seen and known deeply by others. The void is created from emotional abandonment, loneliness, sadness, disappointment, rejection, and a host of other emotions and traumas that haven’t found an expression and resolution. But most of all, it is the lack of intimacy that we have with ourselves, we are avoiding to feel our own emotions and to face our own wounds. Maybe you cannot grasp why you are feeling bad, because perhaps in your case it’s not about what happened, it’s about what is not there and perhaps never has been.
Because we never experienced true emotional presence, we have no idea how to give that presence to ourselves. We experience the pain of negative emotions as overwhelming or even unbearable and do not know how to contain them. We might fear that we will be swallowed and suffocated by these emotions and utterly consumed by them, never finding our way back to light again. So the only solution we come up with is to push these emotions away. To avoid them at all cost and to try to experience something different.
Why do certain foods help us cope? Certain foods are very effective at numbing us and thus giving us a relief from painful emotional states. These foods sedate us and lower our conscious awareness. We are no longer aware of what’s happening inside of us, and as a result, we have even less intimacy with ourselves. Foods that are particularly effective are complex carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, pizza, cakes and cookies. Also heavy, hard to digest foods work, such as cheese, chocolate, fries, ice cream, and potato chips (this is not a conclusive list).
When we eat light and healthy foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, the heightened awareness permits us to feel the pain of disconnection and the lack of intimacy (with ourselves). Consequently, we are forced to feel our own painful and suppressed emotions and everything that is unhealed within ourselves. This is why it’s almost impossible for most people to make lasting lifestyle changes. It’s because they have not learned how to deal with these emotions and wounds that they are suddenly painfully aware of.
When we are children we copy these coping strategies from our parents or perhaps they even thought us to use them, offering us food as comfort or reward. We might have even discovered for ourselves that certain foods make the pain go away and thus bring us relief. Nobody taught us how to deal with painful emotions directly, and so they become suppressed and remain buried in our subconscious minds, influencing our lives in indirect ways.
If we lack the means to actually create change in our lives or to heal our wounds, it is indeed easier and perhaps even more self loving to cope with whatever means we can.
So what’s the solution? If we want to move towards vibrant health and increased awareness, it is essential that we develop intimacy with ourselves, We need to first of all be willing to sit with our emotions and to feel, and second, we need to learn how to hold space for whatever is happening inside of ourselves in any given moment.
The key is to remain aware in the moment when you desire to eat something that you consider unhealthy, which you might afterward regret. Before acting out the automatic behavior, stop and pay attention to what is happening inside of you. Is there something unpleasant? An emotion or a sensation? Sit down, breath and observe what it is you are feeling. This is a great tool for healing and thus reaching higher levels of awareness, for behind every addiction and coping mechanism, there is an unhealed wound. Find that wound and start nurturing it the way you would nurture an abused child. Give yourself the presence and intimacy that you wish to have from others and I guarantee that your relationship to food will change and you will start to see a shift in your external reality.
My personal experience: why I crave fats. I’ve been really craving fats lately, such as olives, avocados and nuts, but especially olives. This makes me feel heavy and bloated and generally not very good. So I wanted to know why I do this to myself when I regret it every single time.
I started a dialogue with the part of me that makes me eat olives using a technique I call Parts Integration. I allowed myself to fully become the part of my consciousness that is responsible for my olive binging episodes.
It turns out that this part wants to remain unconscious, sheltered and comforted. It wants to close down my energy field so as to protect me from incoming negative energies that enter into my system. It is true that I am highly sensitive and receptive to outside energies and have not been very good at shielding myself in the past.
So because I have not had any strategies to protect myself, this part took it onto itself to protect me by making me eat fatty foods. Apparently, these foods do the trick by lowering my conscious awareness and thus my sensitivity. Fats, essentially, close down my energy field from being influenced by others.
It is painful to be constantly swayed by other people’s emotions. When I’m in a heightened state of awareness, I can feel the disconnection all around me that permeates most of the interactions in our society. I can also feel the apathy, the indifference and the loneliness, and there is nothing I can do to shift it in that moment. I easily lose myself in all of this and mistake it as mine. I’m getting glimpses of always feeling this way as a child, and it feels very powerless.
So I thanked this part who has been shielding me all these years and I promised to listen to her more from now on. Now, whenever I feel like eating fatty foods, I turn inwards to this protector part and I ask if I’m allowing things in that do not belong to me. Am I overwhelmed? Am I feeling something unpleasant?
Instead of binging on olives, I go to my room, close the door and the windows and put on meditation music. I close my eyes in meditation and I draw my energy back to myself. I become clear about what it is that belongs to me and what belongs to others. This simple act of bringing my attention back to myself calms down the craving. I’m essentially giving attention to the part that has been frantically trying to make me centered in myself, and now that part can relax and it no longer has to take over the steering wheel by force.
Having more awareness of what’s going on, I can also use fats intentionally to shield myself when going to places such as the airport or the city center, where I really wish to remain in a bubble. It’s all about getting out of the unconscious, automatic behavior, and becoming aware of what’s going on within ourselves. Only then can we act from a place of free will and real CHOICE.