How can I cope with strong negative emotions without overeating?
June 10, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How can I cope with strong negative emotions without overeating?

I am under a lot of stress right now (so much so that two stress-linked medical conditions are severely flaring up.)

I have an injury that prevents me from exercising until it heals. I am told that it will be approximately 6-8 weeks.

My (usually wonderful) boyfriend is temporarily in a different city, and is so stressed about his university studies that he is totally emotionally unavailable until his exams are over at the end of the month. When I talk to him on the phone, he rabbits on about his assignments and exams for 30 minutes and then says "Gotta go." If I talk about my life, he says "Gotta go!" almost the instant that I start. If I send him an email about something that is stressing me, he doesn't answer it. (If I send him an email telling him that I love him and miss him, he answers with a single line saying he loves and misses me too.)

I have some wonderful friends, but I don't want to damage our friendship by asking them for too much emotional support.

I have been under a lot of stress since January 2010, and I feel I have already asked for more than my share of emotional support.

I have a great counsellor, but she is very busy with other patients, and as a result, at the moment I am only seeing her every 16 days or so. (I would LOVE to be seeing her every 7 days.)

So, at the moment I am coping with my stress, sadness, severe loneliness, fear, and anxiety by eating chocolate, icecream, cake...

I am not bingeing per se (I will have two pieces of cake, OR one block of chocolate, OR 500ml of icecream per day - more if it is an especially bad day) but it is still more sugar and calories than I should be having for good health.

This is not great - my cholesterol is too high, my weight is too high (more than 100 kilos / 220 lbs), and my mother has diabetes and I would rather not follow her down that path. (I am already on medication for insulin resistance.)

So, apart from eating how can I cope with all my stress, loneliness, sadness, anxiety?

I know that the usual answer is exercise, but I can't exercise until my injury heals.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't not eat, try sunflower seeds in the shell. They give you something to do with your mouth, but they're relatively much better for you than cake.

I would really try to get in touch with your counselor and explain that you're in a situation that is causing you a lot of stress and you need to see her once a week until this period is over. She is there to help you, and I would guess if you have a good relationship she would only be happy to do this.

One panacea I used was to interact much more vigorously with online communities I was a part of. I found that this helped to limit my feelings of loneliness and take my mind off the bad things that were causing me stress. I spent a lot of time in the chat room on a game I frequented, but I would also suggest more time on MeFi or MetaChat, or really any extra socialization you can stuff into your day.

Best wishes. I know this can sometimes feel overwhelming, but you need to take care of you right now, and it will pass.
posted by Night_owl at 9:40 AM on June 10, 2010

Do you meditate at all? Either silent or guided (get a CD or find something online) meditation could be worth trying. I've been astonished by how helpful mindfulness meditation has been with regard to some stress and anxiety issues I have. I started with this CD, which I found really helpful because, even though parts of it can seem a little silly, he reminds you frequently that it's ok to get distracted or not be perfect, which makes it easier to just let distractions go without feeling like you're doing it wrong.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't be afraid to lean on your friends some more. If they understand what you're going through and they are decent folks, they will be there for you. Sometimes people want to help but don't know how, so if you need a particular type of support (long talking sessions, advice, going for a beer, just hanging out watching a movie) you may need to let them know this explicitly.

Similarly with the boyfriend...have you told him very clearly that you are feeling down and need him to be more present for you? He might just not get how bad things are for you, or understand what you need from him.

As for the food--don't buy junk food! If it's not in the house, you can't eat it. Stock up on yummy fruits (blueberries are a comfort food for me) and reach for those when you need to snack. Even though you can't exercise, could you go for a walk? Sometimes even a short stroll with some music can be tremendously helpful.
posted by tetralix at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2010

Are your hands in good working order? If so, take up some sort of needlework or craft. Make yourself something beautiful and useful. If you can handle the inevitable frustration and slow learning curve that might come with something like beginning knitting, great, but if you need something easier try something like counted cross stitch (much easier than learning to knit) or needlepoint or rug hooking (both really, really easy).
posted by orange swan at 9:46 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you noticed how a cookie always wants another cookie, and another, and then the bag is empty? It's like they get lonely inside and want to party.

Have you noticed how an egg, how it might want one or two friends, is pretty content with just hanging out quietly?

My solution to the addictive response cycle (because it is!) of "just another cookie" is to not get started. Don't have the first cookie. In fact, don't eat any carbs at all until like 5pm. I have a few eggs and some bacon for breakfast, and coffee. And that's it. I'm good till lunch. Then I have some cheese and/or tuna and/or sausage and/or a little peanut butter for lunch, along with some crunchy veggies (celery, broccoli, whatever for that crisp crunch. But again, no carbs. And I'm good until dinner. At which point I'm ready for a good meal and allow myself to eat whatever seems tasty. And if I have a carby dinner, I make sure once done to get the hell away from the kitchen -- going upstairs or out for a walk -- because even now those cookies want another cookie want another cookie....

Anyway, right now I just came back from the kitchen with a bowl of tuna and mayo with some pickle and mozzarella cheese and a litre of water and that'll keep me going for the rest of the workday without that horrid, horrid Pavlovian snacking reflex.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:46 AM on June 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

To deal directly with the problems of loneliness/sadness/anxiety:

1. Seek out friends to do little things, like grabbing coffee or lunch. Don't make a big deal out of it, but do say that things are crazy lately and that you would love some company/distraction. If they ask for details and seem interested, then you can vent to them, but otherwise just enjoy the distraction.

2. Seek out places to get social interaction online, as Night_owl said. It can be personal, real world friends by email or IM or facebook, or online communities. I find that people are often more comfortable discussing feelings through type than out loud, and if you start some casual conversations with friends that you don't know very well or haven't seen in awhile, you might be surprised at who ends up being a great person to talk to.

For coping mechanisms:

I'm so sorry you can't exercise. I don't know what your injury is, but if you can do anything, even just walking or really gentle yoga, it's worth a try. If that isn't possible, perhaps meditation is worth a try? Or what about a simple hobby.... do you draw, paint, or knit? Knitting is easy to pick up with just the help of the internet, and it's incredibly soothing. Once you learn the basics, you can sit and listen to music or watch movies/tv while knitting, and it's lovely.

I don't know if any of that will help, but regardless, I wish you the best of luck and hope that all this passes soon.
posted by keelyellenmarie at 9:55 AM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Women Food and God is a newish book that is about precisely this topic.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:05 AM on June 10, 2010

You might want to check out Overeaters Anonymous... I am speaking from personal experience. Although I have some issues with the 12 step world in general, OA meetings are mostly just gatherings where people with food issues gather and talk about their stresses to a sympathetic room, as an alternative to eating about those stresses.
posted by bingo at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2010

Would your injury permit you to get out of the house in a non-exercise way to get away from where the food is? Can you take a short class or lecture that meets only for a short duration in an area that interests you? Maybe a short-term community education class or craft class or a meetup? Maybe do something nice for yourself like book a massage? If you book your evenings and weekends with fun stuff, you're less likely to turn to food. Also, making new friends in a class or at a meetup might help.

Also, have you asked the counsellor specifically if she can see you more often or are you assuming that she can't?
posted by *s at 10:19 AM on June 10, 2010

About ways to cope without overeating: a hobby that uses your hands is good. Video games, if that's your cup of tea. Also? Reading. Not blogs or websites, but actual physical books. Not only are you taking your mind somewhere else, but you're using both your hands, making it less convenient to eat while reading. For extra incentive not to eat, get your books from the library: you won't want to get smudges or spills on the pages.

About the overeating itself: I used to binge, and the "never allow yourself junk food" approach only made things worse. It didn't get my mind off junk food or steer me towards healthy snacks; it just made me feel even worse about myself when I inevitably broke down. What helped me was learning not to be ashamed of myself for wanting or eating cookies or ice cream. Once the shame and the forbiddenness were gone, the urge weakened considerably. I can now keep junk food in the house and actually forget that it's there. I couldn't before. You'll still have to make healthy choices along the way, but you'll be making a choice instead of imposing a rule.

About feeling like a burden on your friends: tell them about this. Not in that dramatic oh-poor-me way that people usually say it, but more like "hey, I've been needing a lot of support lately, but I fear that I may be taking more than I'm giving, and I don't want to stress you out too." More than likely they'll appreciate your telling them, and if they're good friends they'll be able to discuss it without either of you feeling bad. It's easier to give and receive support when you're clear on what the recipient needs and what the giver can give. You don't need to silently bear the burden of feeling like a burden.

You can get through this! You have my best wishes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

This may be the most off-the-wall suggestion you're likely to get, but I recommend morning pages. I credit them with keeping me (relatively) sane.

It's pretty basic - you wake up, grab your journal/notebook/whatever and write continuously for 3 pages (or maybe 2, if you write small like me). In the unlikely event you run out of stuff to say you write "I have nothing to say" (or words to that effect) until you do. And you do this every day. The traditional way is to do it longhand, but you can do it online if you prefer.

So yeah, it's just dumping the contents of my brain - the fears, obsessions, whatever - onto paper. But you know what? It works.

Also - your boyfriend is kind of being a dick. All he has to do is listen - is that so hard?
posted by O9scar at 11:15 AM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

At 220 lbs, have you considered joining Weight Watchers? I've heard great things about their program (even my doctor recommends them), and it seems like with outside support and accountability to someone other than yourself, you'd be less likely to overeat.

Also, from reading your post, it really seems to me like you're in denial to some extent, especially in light of your health concerns (but kudos for reaching out for help): eating a pint of ice cream is certainly binging. Why do you even have that stuff in your house when you know that you have serious weight-related health problems?
posted by halogen at 11:23 AM on June 10, 2010

All of Geneen Roth's books address the emotional aspects of eating. I highly recommend you check her out (start with Feeding the Hungry Heart, her first book). Her work literally changed my life.
posted by spinto at 11:55 AM on June 10, 2010

You need to ask some of these people you know for help, not just a bunch of strangers on AskMe. You seem to be making excuses for all these people who should be helping you. Are you afraid of losing them?

Say to your boyfriend, "I know it's a stressful time for you, but can I have a few minutes to talk first where you really listen?" When you are in a relationship, you don't really not get to be emotionally available for that long, especially when your partner is going through a very rough time.

Call one of your wonderful friends and say, "Listen, I could use some support right now. Do you have a few minutes?"

Call your counselor and say, "Listen, I need an extra appointment this week. It's important." (For goodness sake, this is her job! Has she told you has too many clients, specifically?)

You sound like the friend who takes on everyone else's problems (including your therapist's!). It's okay to be the friend who needs to depend on others for a bit.

Now, on to the overeating: don't bring these foods into your house. Is that where you are eating them? If so, just stop. Throw it out and don't have them around. Buy fruit and cut it up and make it attractive. It's hard to overeat fresh watermelon or apple.

If you're eating this stuff out... well, then, stop going to the places that trigger this eating. Don't be starving when you go out.

The book Hungry by Allen Zadoff is his story of how he dealt with food addiction, and it's a short but thought-provoking read.

Or, if you just need a few distractions: treat yourself to some compulsively-readable novel and dive in. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:51 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This might be helpful; I hope so.

I've been trying to lose weight lately. I am disabled, at home all the time, and have minimal exercise due to the disability.

I am doing better about not buying things that make me feel really terrible when I eat them. If they're not there, I won't eat them.

I know I'm going to be eating often; I feel really sick when my stomach is empty, and it's hard to ignore feeling sick when you don't have much else to do. So I buy things I can just go eat with minimal worry. Baby carrots. Celery. Rice cakes. Squash. Broccoli. Strawberries. Cherries. Not a whole lot of prep, not a whole lot to them calorie-wise. They're not exactly exciting, but if I end up wanting to binge for one reason or another I can eat an entire plateful of any of these. No real guilt, even if I eat 'till I am going to explode. (Funny enough, I'm eating less at a time now; I still get the impulse to go eat, but I *want* to stop eating before I eat as much as I used to.)

I do get the mini Klondike bars, the 100-cal ones. I can only get to the grocery store once a week, so I try to eat not more than one a day to make them last. And I want to save my sanity, so I try to eat not less than one a day. Seems to be working okay, the sanity thing anyway.

I'm also making sure there's more to what I eat than the one treat a day and the snack foods; it's still important to have real food in there, even if it's coming irregularly. That's one source of stress (illness due to malnutrition) that I can try to eliminate.

So yeah, that's how I deal with the impulse to eat bad things even though I'm *right here* and I'm *hungry* and I'm *stressed* and it would be so easy... The rest of the stress you describe, though, I hope that works out for you soon.
posted by galadriel at 2:33 PM on June 10, 2010

I guess that if you cut the carbs (like someone suggested upthread) while keeping fat intake normal (like common sense dictates) you can pretty much stop worrying about calories, cholesterol, or other negative effects of over eating: you'll stop when you're full, simply. At least that's how it functions for me.
posted by Namlit at 3:23 PM on June 10, 2010

I would say, outside of serious work on the underlying issues, which you are likely doing with your counselor, do make plans with friends. You don't need to unload on them if it makes you feel uncomfortable, but I have always found unnecessary eating to come from boredom/loneliness.

Also, Celestial Seasonings Dessert teas with a little milk!
posted by Pax at 8:31 PM on June 10, 2010

(As someone previously mentioned...) Whenever you feel that urge to snack, write. Are you actually hungry? Or are you looking towards the food as a way to distract yourself from something else? What are you trying to avoid? What are you anxious or upset about in that moment?

I often find that writing out my problems is very therapeutic and really curbs my desire to binge eat. For me, binge eating is way to avoid my emotions and problems. The physical sensations are a distraction and temporary relief. Maybe when you start physically getting those anxieties out onto paper, you'll find that urge to overeat subside.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 8:41 PM on June 10, 2010

Watching tv is bad for a person's diet. Not sure why exactly, but it is.
posted by Deor at 2:08 PM on June 11, 2010

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