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Emotional Eating 101: Fear

An examination of emotional eating would be remiss without talking about fear. We’re driven to do a lot of things – or maybe more accurately avoid a lot of things – out of fear. Obviously, I’m not talking about fear of physical danger.

I’m talking about worry, dread, anxiety, apprehension, even panic.

Emotional fear.

Psychologists might make distinctions among these terms, but for the purposes of discussing emotional eating I’m going to lump them together. If my doing so isn’t in total alignment with the American Psychological Association’s definitions, I apologize. My expertise with these emotions is on the receiving end, not the diagnostic end.

The body’s response to physical and emotional fear can be similar (think adrenaline rush), but the habitual anxiety that often leads to emotional eating is better known as stress. Stress hormones (primarily cortisol), when chronically elevated, can do significant physiological and psychological damage.

Knowing that and doing something about it are two very different things.

I was a habitual emotional eater most of my life. Much of that was a pattern I developed to cope with anxiety (or fear or stress … or whatever you want to call it).

I was afraid of what I call the triple Ds: disapproval, derision, disappointing others.

When I ate I could push these very uncomfortable feelings aside. Or in my case, stuff them down. Because I was so afraid of drawing attention to myself (feelings of inadequacy, but also ultimately because of my physical size) I became very risk-averse.

As I got bigger, my comfort zone got smaller and smaller.

Nobody had to tell me that the toll this stress was taking on me was brutal, both from a physical standpoint and on my psyche. The vicious cycle held me in its grip; I was held captive by fear … which I coped with by overeating … which led to more anxiety.

The epiphany I had in 2007 – when I chose lapband surgery and committed to change my eating and exercise behaviors for life – was a realization that, of all the things that seemed out of control in my life, my weight was at the vortex.

But no matter what method of weight loss you choose, you can’t really just decide not to feel fear anymore. I’m still a worrier. I’m still dogged by self-doubt sometimes. I still fear the triple Ds.

What I don’t do is stuff those feelings down with food anymore.

Allowing myself to just feel them, to just sit with them, sometimes to let them wash over me, is terrifying.

But I’m getting better at coping with my fears. My natural inclination is to draw inward when I’m feeling anxious. Instead now I push myself to reach out. Not necessarily to talk about my fears, but just to connect with others.

Cultivating emotionally supportive relationships has been critically important to my learning to turn to people instead of food when I get stressed.

And maybe the simplest solution I’ve learned is to just allow myself to have fun every day.

It seems so elementary, yet as responsible adults with so many commitments we forget sometimes to allow time for fun. It is a great stress reducer, which makes controlling emotional eating much easier.

It is with more than just a tiny bit of anxiety that I offer up my own fears as a way of showing how damaging it can be to let them rule your life.

To be perfectly honest, I hate talking about this stuff. I’d much prefer that the world think I’ve got it all together.

But I’ve come a very long way, and I cannot sit down and shut up if my experience and insight can be helpful to anyone else.

Losing weight is very hard; I am in awe of those of you who are on that path. But it gets easier. I swear it does. And you’re so damn worth it!

Let’s go get it!

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