I have a dear friend who spent the last year going in and out of the hospital, caring for complications from a major illness. His body was in such a stressed state that going to sleep was near impossible.
So he’d watch movies and TV shows until the wee hours of the night, until his body was so exhausted that he’d collapse into sleep.
His experience reminds me of a story I heard from neuroscience teacher Sarah Peyton, who’d bring books in the car with her to read at stop lights – her books kept the ‘noise’ and overwhelm of depression at bay.
For many of us, eating serves a similar purpose. I remember so many nights grazing in my kitchen after dinner, eating and eating and eating, trying to get to a place of ‘rest’ where the overwhelm I felt inside would finally soften.
In all these ways we’re seeking relief: we long for a place of refuge to ‘hold’ us.
When we care for stress, overwhelm, or trauma, and we face moments of emptiness or quiet, we can feel overwhelmed by what arises in the stillness. For in these quiet spaces, that’s when the emotions that we’ve been carrying begin to speak.
Sometimes this emotional load is overwhelming, and it floods us, and so we seek out a substance or behavior to hold us.
It’s becoming more and more understood that trauma – including developmental trauma – is the underbelly that feeds our addictive and compulsive behaviors. As therapist Bonnie Badenoch writes, trauma ‘lies at the root of the need to protect ourselves through addiction.’
When I take in that sentence, I have tears in my eyes. I feel such compassion, warmth, and respect for our addictive behaviors: that addiction arises from a need to protect ourselves.
So let’s pause together to honor our vulnerability – all those things that we’ve carried that have felt too much to bear on our own. And let’s pause to take in the dignity of our coping strategies, the many ways we’ve tried to protect ourselves.
When we’re flooded or stressed, sometimes the best support we can imagine is a candy bar or Netflix. And yet there’s also something within us that will continue to seek, looking for something beyond the food or TV show, hoping to find a more nourishing place of refuge. This is the ‘seeking system,’ and it’s part of our inherent health, how our nervous systems and bodies are actively caring for us.
Healing trauma takes time, and needs support and care. Healing our addictive patterns takes time, and also needs support and care.
It’s highly possible that we’ll have moments in the future – or even later today – when we feel overwhelmed by the emotions that are stirred up within us. And it’s highly possible that with these emotions, we’ll feel a craving or a pull for food.
It’s so easy to see this activation of emotion and our desire for food as a sign of failure, or as confirmation that we’re broken and will never heal.
And we can also look at this ‘stirring up’ as a sign that our seeking system is alive and well – that some part of us is activated, knowing we need support, and is looking for it, in whatever way we can find.
Like the potato shoots seeking the light that I wrote about recently, something in you is seeking, step by step, looking for the most nourishing relationships and solutions it can imagine to ease your pain.
Sometimes this is a beloved pet. Sometimes it’s a forest, or an ocean, or tree. Sometimes it’s a bath. Sometimes it’s a friend or partner. Sometimes it’s a healer. And sometimes it’s cake.
So let’s pause again, and imagine our own seeking roots, reaching down and out, looking for nourishing soil. Let’s take a moment to reflect on all the ways we’ve sought care and support, all those many ways we’ve reached out so as to not feel or be alone.
Can we feel the strength and health within? The healing impulse, as Carl Rogers called it, that part in us that reaches towards the light?
Bless the healing impulse within you. Bless each tendril and shoot and vine, each way you reach for help and care. Bless each seed and root. May they weave together a tapestry.