How to release inner tension without food
Overeating is often triggered by a build up of anxiety, inner stress, and tension. Chronic anxiety and tension feels tight, hot, and pressured in our bodies – like we’re going to scream, hit something or explode. It’s super uncomfortable, which is why we try to move out of it.
One way of moving out of this tension is by eating. We “explode” into food – and doesn’t it feel like a bomb goes off when you binge, as you stuff yourself with food as quickly as you can, and then survey the empty bowls, wrappers, and containers afterwards? When we eat, we relax. We move out of this overaroused state and come down.
We feel better as the tension leaves our body. Aaahhh! It’s a giant release, in the same way that orgasm, exercise, or yelling can be a release. (When I was bulimic, I didn’t understand why I felt so much better after purging – especially since it left me feeling disgusted and ashamed. But I felt better because in throwing up, I alleviated my inner tension. It was how I gave myself a release.)
To shift this pattern, we can do two things: we can lower our inner tension in healthy, life affirming ways. We can also grow our resilience – our ability to sit with inner tension without reacting to it.
One way of lowering tension is by creating boundaries. Without boundaries, life feels very scary. There are no limits, boundaries, or safety nets to bump up against. Without these safety nets, we’re on constant edge. Our anxiety is off the charts because there’s always this sense that we’re going to be imposed upon – whether it’s a chocolate chip cookie from the bakery at the grocery store – Do I want to eat it? – or someone asking for a favor.
With boundaries, we feel safe. We have limits and structures that support our intentions about how we want to live, and how we want to eat. If you have a boundary that says, “I eat my meals sitting down, and on a plate,” then scarfing down a cookie in the bakery aisle of the store isn’t an option. The boundary says no for you. The limit creates safety because you don’t have to remake that decision every time you go to the store – do I or don’t I eat the cookie? You don’t feel imposed upon when you go to the store and see the fresh baked cookies because you’ve already established the no.
It’s the same with interpersonal boundaries – or emotional boundaries – with other people. If you don’t feel like you can say to someone, “I don’t like that. Please stop.” or, “No,” or, “Those are your thoughts, not mine” – to be able to separate you from me – you will feel powerless, imposed upon, and resentful. You will feel like an extension of someone else. You may eat to soothe the anger or anxiety you feel about living this way.
According to developmental psychology, one of our basic needs as human beings is to be our own person, what is called individuation or differentiation. Many of us weren’t given the proper nurturing as children in order to build our individuality. As adults, we may have a weak sense of self.
Many women I talk to with food stuff feel this way. We’re super sensitive and pick up on everything – people’s emotions, needs, thoughts and feelings. Then we feel responsible for what we pick up on. We feel responsible for everything. No wonder we’re filled with anxiety – we feel like making everyone happy is our job. No wonder we eat to escape from this feeling! It’s an unfair, impossible pressure.
Fortunately, we can give ourselves this essential individuation as adults. As we set greater emotional and physical boundaries in our lives, we relax. We relax in this feeling of safety. We separate what we are truly responsible for from what we aren’t. Our anxiety lowers. Instead of using food as an escape from poor boundaries, we’re using our personal power to care for ourselves. Wow. It feels so good.
If you have a hard time with boundaries – I certainly have! – please don’t judge yourself. You’re not a bad person – you simply didn’t learn how. You may have been raised in a family with poor boundaries. You may find boundary setting difficult because it brings up fears of being rejected, abandoned, or unloved – a feeling of “If I say no, I’ll be cast out/someone won’t like me/I’ll feel the terror of this separation.”
It’s okay. Please don’t make it “wrong” or “bad” that you need help in boundary setting. Being kind to yourself is what enables you to do the messy work of strengthening your boundaries.
Here’s how I strengthen my boundaries. When I feel like I’m taking on other people’s stuff – feeling overly responsible for their feelings or behavior, or feeling like I have to have the same thoughts or beliefs as they do in order to keep the relationship close – I gently remind myself, “Give it back.” I give back what is theirs – their feelings, their beliefs, their thoughts, their expectations – and own what is mine. I feel my entire body relax when I use this mantra, because I don’t feel so imposed upon. There is a boundary around what I take in as “mine.”
I also pay attention to my judgments. If I’m crazily judging other people in my mind, it’s often a sign of wavy boundaries. I’m judging as a backhanded way to create safety and separation for myself.
That’s because judgment is a form of attack; one form of fight or flight (in this case, fight.) We often judge – an aggressive reaction of “You’re wrong” – because we don’t feel safe to have a different opinion, thought, belief or action. If we don’t feel that we can be our own person, with our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs, then everything you think and believe is a threat to me. I have to adopt it, because we’re the same person. So we judge other people in order to create space – in order to say, “No,” or, “That’s not for me.”
By separating our stuff from someone else’s – and this includes giving another person the dignity to have their own feelings, thoughts and beliefs, which may be very different than your own – we create the safety we need. We don’t have to attack/judge them to create the space to be, think or act differently.
We can also be kind to ourselves by noticing how we talk to ourselves when we feel the build up of tension. This is how we build our inner resilience to handle uncomfortable feelings like anxiety without eating them.
When you feel the tension rising in your body, instead of hooking onto, “I can’t handle this! It’s too much! I’m going to explode,” try this: Pause. Stop. Move away from the fridge. Close your eyes and put your hand on your heart. Take 5,10, 15 deep, deep belly breaths. Feel the rising tension and offer it love and care. Don’t fight it. Let it be there. Imagine wrapping your arms around it. You can even rock yourself like a small child, rocking with your breath; rocking with the intensity of emotion.
Give yourself care. Tell yourself, “I’m so proud of you. You can handle this. You can handle this. You’re okay. You’re safe with me.” Reassure yourself that as uncomfortable as it feels, you can get through this. Talk to yourself as kindly as a loving, present mother would talk to her children until the tension subsides.
It’s a brave, brave thing to sit with inner tension, to care for it instead of eating it, pushing it away, or hiding from it. It’s a brave thing to change how you habitually react when you’re feeling tense. It’s a brave thing to say, “No,” to acknowledge your differences, to tell someone, “I’m so glad we don’t have to agree to be close.”