Emotional eating is not always just emotional eating. Sometimes, it is a full-fledged addiction with obvious-and very serious-consequences.
Acknowledging this addiction is the first step. Just ask yourself how many people you know who have endangered their health through eating! The fact is, once food is "installed" in an individual's mental computer as a way to deal with problems or stress, it can become so deeply embedded in his or her mind and so important that he or she would literally die to keep it.
It is hard to describe the intensity of this addiction because it is so commonplace and so easily disguised and blended into "just" eating. As one of my patients said so clearly, "Nothing is going to get between me and my eating. I am always ravenously hungry, and when the burrito stand is in view, I must eat."
No one can stop me.
I don't want to stop.
I can't stop.
I won't let anybody try to trick me into wanting to stop.
Stay away! This is sacred territory that I will defend with all of my strength.
These are the sorts of messages you receive when you just ask a person to consider their emotional eating patterns. This is what happens when you just suggest that maybe you are confusing emotional hunger with biological hunger.
The resistance to dealing with this addiction at all is the strongest indicator of how much the addicted person is motivated to stay addicted. Yes, once you are addicted, you are also motivated to stay that way.
How Does One Become Addicted to Food?
The beginning of food addiction is a bit different for everyone because it can start at different ages. However, there is one universal theme. Somewhere along the lines you learned that eating can soothe the ordinary hurts in life. We all learn that, because it is true, has always been true an always will be true.
All addiction follows the same basic pattern. You are in a distressed state of mind, and the substance-whether it be alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, or a cupcake-offers you almost instant, albeit temporary, relief from your distress. If it works the first time, you do it again and again. When it becomes the mechanism of choice, that's when you become addicted.
It is the short route to the resolution of personal unhappiness. But if you are addicted now, it means you became too dependent on this mechanism and you created a short circuit to feeling good that now works against you.
Food addiction is a short circuit in many ways. Literally, it is the fastest route to feeling better. But it is also a short circuit in another sense, the more you use this mechanism, the more you bypass some essential work of life and short circuit the new learning and new ways of managing your feelings that can make life more fulfilling and a lot easier. You are trading the short-term gain for a real long-term loss.
The more you use it as a short circuit, the more you avoid doing what is necessary to resolve the unhappiness in real life, in real time. The more you avoid, the less you learn about how to manage your mind and your life, or at least those critical parts of you that have not fully matured and have been brought under rational control.
It's a vicious cycle. The more you avoid learning, the more you need the cure, which makes you avoid learning all the more, which...makes you eat!
Why Can't I Just Stop?
It is our contention that since this addiction is a learned pattern, you can unlearn it! It is not mysterious, even though it seems so because it is so powerful and so embedded in ordinary thinking patterns. That's the good news.
While it is a learned behavior, we are not suggesting that the unlearning process is just a matter of education. No, once food has become installed as a primary way to regulate moods and emotions, it almost becomes an essential part of the person's mind. That's the bad news.
In cases where emotional eating has become food addiction, food is no longer food. The taste is largely irrelevant. It's the mental effect that is being looked for in the meal, not the calories or the flavor. Some have described their relationship between themselves and food as that of jealous lovers who want to possess, horde, hide and clandestinely have one another for their own.
There is a great deal of truth in that description, but it doesn't quite get to the quality I hear in my patients. What I hear sounds more like the eating pattern has become a part of their mental selves the same way an arm is part of their bodily selves, and is defended similarly. You wouldn't let anybody convince you to cut off your arm. In the same way, the person addicted to food won't let anybody convince them to give up this mechanism of internal control.
The bottom line is that food addiction has the same imperative quality as addiction has in the heroin addict who has to have his "fix," or the smoker who must have one more drag, or the alcoholic who must have one more drink. Food addicts can't bear the thought of refusing themselves satisfaction through food.
Florence Williams, a mother, describes the incredible experience between mother and child during nursing, and reveals the primordial power of food addiction in this quote from a New York Times Magazine article on Sunday, January 9, 2005:
"...every time we nurse our babies, the love hormone oxytocin courses out of our pituitaries like a warm bath. Human milk is like ice cream, Valium and Ecstasy all wrapped up in two pretty packages. For a mother and child, nursing is perhaps the most intimate of acts. Evolutionary biologists call it matrotrophy; eating one's mother. My daughter is not only physically attached to me; she is taking from me all that I can give her. Each time I lift my shirt, she pants and flaps her arms and legs as if it were Christmas. Then she settles in, both of us wholly reassured that this is the best, safest and most satisfying food she could eat."
Although not all mothers nurse, this is still the prototypic experience of the kind of bliss that we seek to recreate, in one way or another, the rest of our lives-especially when turning to food for comfort. We seek the temporary pleasure and relief, the sense that for now at least everything seems all right, when moments before it seemed as if everything was all wrong. And when this natural desire becomes addiction, most people refuse to believe that they can continue to function if they give it up.
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Dr. Roger Gould is one of the world's leading authorities on emotional eating and adult development. A board-certified psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and former head of Community Psychiatry and Outpatient Psychiatry at UCLA, he is the author of Transformations and Shrink Yourself.