This month a group has been going through When Food is Your Mother, our signature class. In this class we explore how food can serve as a substitute ‘mother’ that attunes to our needs, concerns, stressors, and anxieties.
Food hears our pain, cares for us, listens to us, and offers us warmth and care.
People often say, “I know the sugar bingeing doesn’t feel good and hurts my body. But I want the effect!”
For some people, the effect that they’re wanting from sugar is soothing or a place to check out – a place to not have to work, care, help, caretake or worry, or a place to numb what feels overwhelming.
You may want an escape from the noise in your head or are looking for a way to feel less anxious.
For others, the effect that they’re wanting from food is a place to feel more alive or energized.
You may care for feelings of depression, hopelessness or despair and feel numb or nothing. Food steps in to help you feel more invigorated and less lethargic. Food may offer a pick me up, a way that helps you feel like you have a sense of purpose or agency.
In both poles, food is serving as a nervous system regulator. For those of you who like understanding the science behind this, you can watch a video about Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory here, where he and therapist Jan Winhall explain how addictions regulate the nervous system.
In either case we’re trying to move from painful places of shut down or overarousal into a more settled place of calm and connection. This place of calm and connection is where our nervous systems like to be, and where we thrive.
Understanding how addiction regulates and soothes the nervous system can soften the shame we feel about our compulsive patterns. We can see how our bodies are trying to move us into a more settled place.
In my own life, my nervous system tends to have a lot of anxiety in it. I can feel, in my body, that pull to seek something to help it come down when it’s razzed up – whether it’s a pull to check something out on the internet, to eat, or to tidy my kitchen cabinets.
If you recognize yourself in these patterns, you can support your nervous system and its needs so you aren’t fighting against your biology but working with it.
This makes healing so much easier! Here are a few things that can help.
1. Give yourself conscious ways to check out
We live in a very overstimulating world! In 2011, we took in five times as much information every day as we did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed and want to check out!
We’re intuitively already doing this, with food. What we need are conscious ways to check out – to play, to not work or be responsible for anything, and to not take in more. And we need self compassion for how hard it is to thrive in modern life.
2. Give yourself conscious ways to stop care giving
If you do a lot of care taking for others, or if you work in a helping profession, you probably reach your daily limits of ‘give a shit,’ as one of my teachers humorously said.
We only have so much to give. I hear from many sensitive, caring, heart centered people who long to come down and be cared for in the way that they care for others. Sugar often steps in as their caretaker when they need to receive rather than to give.
See if you can have times in your day when you’re consciously not in giving mode, just as you have places where you consciously check out.
3. Give yourself outlets for anxiety and alarm
My mentor in developmental psychology, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, talks about how we all need conscious outlets for the alarm/anxiety in our nervous systems to flow.
This is where my kitchen cabinet tidying comes in! Consciously channel the alarm you feel into an organizing project or drain it with some physical work – cleaning a dirty room, dancing, exercising, or going for a bike ride.
4. Reach out for support
We’re creatures of connection, with a need for contact and closeness, from the cradle to the grave. Social baseline theory talks about how difficult things are perceived as less hard by the brain and pain is more easily born when we have the emotional support of another.
We try to do so much on our own, when we’re designed to be interdependent. If you use sugar as your source of support, try reaching out to a trusted person who can support you instead, one tiny, tiny step at a time.
I hope that this perspective is helpful to you as you create a more peaceful and compassionate relationship with food. Understanding our biology helps us come alongside ourselves in support – and softens the frustration and challenges of being human.
We feel more humor, more levity, and more leadership as we help ourselves thrive.