One of the topics that came up in the Soften a Sugar Habit with Presence, Compassion and Grief class this week is the nervous system, and the impact a dysregulated nervous system can have on our patterns with food.
When our nervous systems feel dysregulated – either we’re feeling too much anxiety, stimulation, or overarousal, or we’re feeling collapsed, hopeless, despairing or flat – we can use food to calm or ‘lift’ ourselves.
For example, when you feel depressed, hopeless, or overwhelmed by sadness and despair, a food treat may lift your spirits and move your nervous system into a sense of agency.
I can see how this has been true in my own life – when I felt hopeless, a food treat often made me feel empowered, like I could effect positive change in my life. My nervous system felt different, like I’d moved myself into a different state.
Interestingly, exercise does the same thing for my nervous system as comfort eating – and without so many negative side effects.
At other times, when we feel overwhelmed by anxiety, anger, frustration or stress, food can calm our nervous systems, soothe our anger, or soften our anxiety and distress.
These two needs – the need to come down, or the need to feel empowered/able to make changes – are often underneath cravings for food.
Mapping your nervous system to care for cravings
It can be very helpful to notice when you crave food and when these two different needs arise. You can get a journal and begin mapping your experience. With a kind curiosity, notice: when are you needing an uplift, or a feeling of power and agency?
And when are you needing soothing, comfort and calming?
See if you can notice the first signs of change – when the distress begins to build. What do you feel in your body? How do you feel emotionally?
For example, when I’m sliding into a feeling of collapse/shut down/powerlessness, it first arises for me as a low grade irritability.
Often, we experience this distress in small doses, and it builds over time. When it’s built into a sufficient mass, that’s when the waves crash over the dam and we soothe ourselves with food.
So notice when you feel those first glimmers of distress. And notice how, when that distress arises, the brain offers the suggestion, “Maybe food would help here?”
And then pause. Thank your brain for trying to help you. Feel the rise and fall of your nervous system and ask yourself: what else could help me here? What else would soothe my needs?
If you feel tempted to soothe yourself in a way that harms you, you can ask an additional question – what would help me not hurt myself here? Often what we need is someone at our side, some form of emotional support.
If you’re someone who has a sensitive nervous system, you may feel some shame, frustration, or annoyance by your sensitivity. You may wish you had a different nervous system that was more ‘stable’ and less changeable. You may even feel broken or damaged.
Becoming a friend to your nervous system
Following the ebb and flow of our nervous system helps us befriend our nervous system, our needs, and the ebb and flow of our human experience. We become more attuned caregivers to our needs and more attuned to the way our needs change.
When we feel less victimized by our nervous system we become an ally to it. The shame, frustration, and feelings of being ‘damaged’ moves into a deeper acceptance and wise care.
We may not like our nervous system’s sensitivity – but/and we can care for it. In this care, not only do we feel more empowered in the face of sugar cravings, more like the captain of our ship, but we also reclaim our wholeness, and our dignity.