Updated: Nov 14
I’ve spent countless hours in this chair over the past few years. The cobalt blue glass ball perched on the windowsill has been a constant source of solace for me. It helped quiet my mind and soothe my body. There’s something serene about gazing out at ground level from this room, and as I inhaled deeply, a sense of relaxation washed over me.
Sitting across from me was Carol. She is a remarkable woman who’s long, flowing black hair gracefully cascaded over her shoulders, merging with the soft hues of her elegant dress. She was a unique blend of a shaman and a warrior goddess, offering her wisdom to help me process the complexities of my life. Today, our conversation revolved around my relationship with food.
“So, overeating is compulsive behavior, right?” I posed this
as a statement-question, implying I had an inkling of what I was talking about, but I sought Carol’s affirmation.
Carol, always thoughtful and never hasty with her responses, paused for a moment. Finally, she replied, “Overeating is more of a dissociative response.”
My eyebrow arched, reminiscent of Spock from Star Trek, perplexed by her choice of words. My incredulity sprang from the term ‘dissociate’ and the thoughts it conjured. I’m not suffering from multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder.
Observing my bewilderment, Carol clarified her statement.
“Kathy, when we overeat, we’re attempting to disconnect from emotions we’d rather not confront. We anesthetize ourselves with food to avoid those painful feelings. That’s what I mean by dissociation.”
This conversation left a lasting mark on me. It was a pivotal moment in how I viewed my issues with overeating. I came to understand that I was using food as a shield against discomfort and emotional pain. This realization forced me to examine why I overate and how it serves as a buffer against unwelcomed emotions.
What is dissociation, you may wonder?
Dissociation is a coping mechanism, a way to detach from reality. In severe cases, trauma may cause individuals to feel disconnected from their bodies. They may feel as if they’re floating above themselves. Sometimes, they may even witness the trauma they’re experiencing, but mentally distance themselves from it. If this type of disassociation from the body persists, it can lead to serious mental health conditions.
However, dissociation isn’t always so severe. Many of us experience it in milder forms when, for instance, we arrive at our destination without recalling the journey while driving. Daydreaming is another common example of mild dissociation. Food can also serve as a tool for this type of detachment. This becomes problematic when we consistently use it to escape pain. This habitual use of food for emotional relief can be detrimental to our well-being.
Emotional eating is a form of dissociation. Food’s primary purpose is to nourish our bodies and celebrate life. However, when it’s used as a refuge from emotional distress, it becomes a means to comfort, numb, or divert attention from the pain, rather than confronting it. Often, these patterns begin in childhood. We use food to console ourselves, especially when caregivers cannot help us navigate our emotions or when they are the source of our pain. Over time, strong neural pathways develop in our brains, making it harder to break free from this behavior as adults. Overeating becomes our primary coping mechanism for dealing with painful emotions.
To break free from this cycle of emotional disassociation, we must confront the feelings we’ve been avoiding. This isn’t easy work, as our brains
have become skilled at shielding us from pain. However, we can overcome with the support of a qualified trauma therapist, self-education, and the help of trusted friends and family.
Another tool in conquering emotional eating is recognizing and addressing our triggers. Grounding techniques can help us stay present and connected to the moment. Here are a few such techniques:
1. Deep breathing while counting, inhaling to four, and exhaling to ten.
2. Naming three to five things you can hear in the present moment.
3. Taking a nature walk to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds. You can even remove your shoes to feel the ground beneath under foot.
4. Holding a cup or glass with something hot or cold, being cautious not to burn yourself.
5. Gentle arm stroking or rubbing your hands together.
Grounding practices aim to bring you back to the present moment when emotional triggers attempt to pull you into the past. These practices also help when overwhelming emotions prompt disassociation with food.
Using food to numb painful emotions is easy to do, but breaking free from this pattern is challenging. The first step is recognizing that you’re doing it. Once you acknowledge this behavior, you can focus on making changes. Employing grounding techniques and other mindfulness activities is helpful. Meditation and yoga can calm the mind. Equally important is discussing your feelings with a therapist, trusted friend, or family member.