These last few weeks we’ve been talking about the map of healing and how to be with the anxiety that arises when we face our wounds.
You could argue that anxiety is the most common driver of overeating. When our nervous system is alarmed, and we feel that primal sense of danger, food is an instinctual, natural balm.
Anxiety also arises from the overeating itself. Initially, we often feel soothed by eating – the act of chewing moves us out of fight or flight and into the parasympathetic nervous system, the nervous system of ‘rest.’
But this soothing is very quickly replaced by anxiety, frustration, or shame when we can’t stop.
Anxiety also arises when we face the pain that lives underneath the overeating – when we sift through the layers and touch the pain that the overeating is protecting.
That’s a lot of anxiety to face, and to feel.
In a culture that prizes individualism, winning, and wellness, anxiety can feel like something ‘shameful’ that we should be able to control. As a mentor once said, “The wellness industry can be very intolerant of unwellness.”
We can feel so worried when anxiety arises in our bodies. I smiled in sweet recognition when I saw a Charlie Brown cartoon of him sitting up in bed, looking distressed, saying, “My anxieties have anxieties!”
He gets it!
In the face of anxiety, our bodies tighten, our minds tighten, and we may scramble to use our tools to try and help ourselves feel less agitated.
We often try so hard not to overeat when we feel anxious. The trying and trying can bring its own exhaustion, no?
Anxiety is so uncomfortable – not an easy emotion to bear. Here as I sit and write to you, I feel so much care for these places inside me, and inside you, that feel so alarmed and that long to be soothed.
Maybe we can sit with those places together.
It helps to bring compassion to the places inside us that can feel so worried and distressed – to offer them a place at our inner table, where they can pour out their concerns and be met with warmth and kindness.
As Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh said, we can ‘hold these places inside like a mother holds her children.’
And it helps to bring a recognition of all that gets stirred up in us when we start to explore the tender underbelly, the wounds that lie underneath our protector, overeating.
These wounds have their own timing, and their own arrival up on the surface of our lives.
Sometimes we’re stunned by what arises in our inner worlds for healing: an awareness dawns and we see something we didn’t see before. This can bring a sense of lightness with it – a “No wonder!” that softens the callused build up of frustration and shame.
You might find yourself singing out loud to the radio, or dancing in your kitchen – feeling free.
At other times, something very tender gets touched and awakened inside us, and we may feel sadness, anger, or fear as it uncoils from our nervous systems.
During these times, we need lots of warm emotional support – a talk with a friend or loved one, a listening partner, or support from a therapist – to help us accompany and care for our pain.
Often, after being held, and after crying out the grief that’s arisen, the anxiety ebbs, too. We’ve gone into the dark – with help – and have come out the other side.
It takes such courage to go within and face our pain. It takes such courage to bear the discomfort of anxiety.
It takes courage to reach out, to find those 1 or 2 people who can sit with our pain with us, so we don’t have to bear it alone.
And it takes courage to bear the discomfort of overeating and not turn our swords against our own hearts, shaming ourselves for ‘not handling our anxiety better.’
I wish I could promise that healing doesn’t involve feeling vulnerable emotions like anxiety. But in my experience, it does.
So if the anxiety is there, and the anxiety longs to be held, we can yearn to bring as much kindness, curiosity, understanding, and appreciation to these parts of us, too.
While the outside world might be condemning or impatient with anxiety, here, in our little world, we can invite it in, and let it rest for a while.