By Karol Ward, MSW, LCSW
Chapter Six: Food and Mood
In this chapter, we will examine how food can be either our friend or foe when it comes to managing our worry. We will examine what lies beneath our food choices and how emotions, such as worry, can create problems in our eating habits. We will also focus on how those foods can affect our overall mood. The purpose of exploring your food choices is not to judge your eating habits but to offer insight on how what you choose to eat can both contribute to and reduce the effects of worry. I have even asked a few nutrition experts to offer their expertise on how particular foods affect our mood. They will provide information and suggestions for you that will help you maintain your physical energy, support your mental clarity, and keep your spirits balanced, to better enable you to handle life’s difficulties.
When Worried Meets Sugar and Caffeine
I remember a patient I had many years ago, a young man who was physically active and had no issues with food. During our treatment together, he broke up with his girlfriend and worried whether he would ever find another relationship. He shared in therapy that he found himself eating a pint of ice cream every night when he got home from work. This was unusual behavior for this patient, who normally liked to go to the gym after he left the office. He told me he was not feeling in the mood to work out after work and instead found himself heading straight to his apartment and later to his freezer. When we explored this behavior, he discovered that underneath all the ice cream was a great deal of sadness. Eating the ice cream was his way of soothing his feelings and providing comfort over the loss of his relationship. Once he was able to connect to those feelings, his desire for his nighttime treat diminished. He later told me that the ice cream was “not doing the trick anyway,” and in reality the nightly pints were making him feel sluggish in the morning. and he felt better, he returned to his usual ways of taking care of himself through exercise and connecting to friends.
When we are worried and stressed, our bodies go into the hyper state of arousal I described in Chapter 1. That was the fight-or-flight response we have in reaction to perceived danger. This means that all of our internal systems and organs arefocused on how to handle whatever is causing us to be on high alert. As the result of excess stress, our bodies start to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are both secreted by the adrenal glands. These small kidney-shaped glands kick out a surge of power when we need it, so that we have the extra boost of energy we need in order to handle a crisis. That crisis can be large (such as running from a fire), small (such as having to finish a school paper), or ongoing (such as caring for someone with a chronic illness). Whatever the size of the crisis, the adrenal glands will continue their output of adrenaline. Adrenaline increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pressure, and generally speeds up our energy. We use adrenaline when responding to perceived danger, and it enables us to make quick decisions. After the danger has passed, your body returns to a state of calm and your hormone levels go back to normal.
Imagine what your body is going through when you are in a constant state of worry and when you are physically tense. The adrenal glands try to do their job “by responding with a continual release of adrenaline. If your state of worry never shifts, the adrenals will keep supplying adrenaline. Over time, the adrenal glands are overworked by such continual overuse and do not function as well. This constant stress affects your body’s overall ability to cope. A domino effect starts to occur because if we do not have properly functioning adrenals, we feel tired. When we feel this fatigue, we may turn to quick sources of energy, such as caffeine and sugar, to keep going. Because the effects of those foods are short-lived, and they give us a fast boost but not a sustained one, we turn to them again and again. Soon, we find ourselves on a physical and ultimately emotional roller coaster of needing energy, looking for a quick fix, and then crashing physically when the sugar and caffeine wear off.
The same holds true for the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is also released by the adrenal glands and is used to manage the stress response in the body. Cortisol helps keep your immune system balanced, regulates your blood pressure, and keeps in check any of your other internal systems that are not needed when you are responding to a suspected threat. However, when you are in a chronic state of stress and do not return to a more relaxed state, too much cortisol is produced and has nowhere to go. Over time, the excess cortisol starts to work against you. Among other things, excess cortisol causes weight gain, impairs your memory, and affects your thyroid function. Until the real cause of the problem-chronic worry-is addressed, a cycle begins to happen. We end up choosing foods to keep going in the short term as opposed to making changes that will support us in the long term.
The Food and Worry Connection
When someone starts to gain or lose weight and there is no medical issue, it can usually be attributed to the stresses of life,which people respond to by over- or undereating. These stresses can include a variety of issues such as job worries, money When someone starts to gain or lose weight and there is no medical issue, it can usually be attributed to the stresses of life, which people respond to by over- or undereating. These stresses can include a variety of issues such as job worries, money worries, relationship problems, and family demands. Many people who tend to overeat turn to food for comfort, to reduce anxiety, to stuff anger, or to push beyond their exhaustion. Unless the reasons for overeating are understood, the person’s use of food to manage feelings will continue until they reach a point of ill health, have gained weight, or feel exhausted and emotional.
These symptoms are the body’s way of presenting its bill for food being used as a coping mechanism. The use of excess food to cope develops for many psychological and emotional reasons. Over time, eating becomes a way to manage uncomfortable feelings from either the past or the present. Food becomes an area where that tension plays out and can cause quite a bit of emotional distress. Until there is an understanding, release, and resolution to what you are feeling, the choice to manage emotions through overeating will happen again.
As a therapist, I know that most people do not want to turn to unhealthy behaviors to cope and are sometimes not even aware that the urge to eat poorly is connected to either a state of worry or other emotional issues. In fact, those who struggle with compulsive or binge eating often describe it as an overwhelming need. They feel compelled to engage in these behaviors and are not really conscious about why they are eating when they are not hungry. Afterward, when they feel lousy from the unhealthy food choices or have gained weight, they inevitably feel ashamed and helpless about their inability to remain in control.
The same holds true for those who undereat. As we when looking at stress hormones earlier, if we are continually worried and stressed, our appetite can actually get suppressed. When I first heard the news about my mother’s diagnosis, I could not eat for a few days. I just was not interested and spent most of my time trying to digest the news. As I researched more about our stress hormones, I saw how my reaction fit right into human biology. When our bodies are on alert and focused on a problem, the internal systems that are not needed shut down for a while. I imagine it is similar to when we put our computers into sleep mode. They are still on but not fully functioning until we need them to. So, loss of appetite due to chronic worry keeps us from getting what we really need, which is good, healthy sources of energy. Over time the lack of nutrients takes its toll on our bodies, moods, and perspectives. Parents know from experience how feeding hungry children can take them from tears to laughter. This is a good example of how acutely our moods are affected when we are deprived, even for a short time, of nourishment.
Food, Worry, and Reality Checking
Kay was a young woman in her late thirties who was a vice president in a public-relations firm. Married for about four years, Kay came for therapy because she was very unhappy with her physical appearance. Over the past five years Kay had steadily been gaining weight and had put on about thirty pounds. She told me she was not sure why she was gaining weight and said, “I’m definitely not the most healthy eater, but I don’t feel I eat that much.”
After exploring Kay’s history with food and ruling out any eating disorders, I had her describe a typical week. Kay revealed that she was a social person on the weekends with a fairly demanding schedule during the week. She explained that she tended to eat at odd hours because of her job and often used food to either wind down or rev up. She usually arrived home around ten P.M., and because she had not eaten enough earlier in the day, she ended up ordering food and drinking wine to relax. She would then fall asleep around one A.M. after watching television. In the morning, because she was exhausted, she had numerous cups of coffee to get going plus whatever sugary pastry appealed to her. In a basic way, Kay was addressing her long days and fatigue in the short term by giving her body what it craved. The sugar and coffee gave her energy, whereas the wine and late dinners helped her wind down. Yet as Kay and I discovered, the long-term solution was about addressing the real issue: her demanding job. Kay believed that if she did not stay late and keep herself available to her staff, she would be viewed as slacking off. Kay’s yearly reviews had always been positive, so her perspective on her job seemed off. I encouraged Kay to start setting some more realistic boundaries around her work hours and to create more time to be with her husband.
In order to help Kay verify her perspective and keep her from worrying, I asked her to get a reality check for each action she took. She could do this in two ways: checking in either before she took an action or after. For example, Kay decided to let her boss know that she was going to start leaving the office earlier. She discovered that her boss was not aware that Kay had been staying so late and supported her wholeheartedly. The second option involved Kay getting a reality check after she began shutting her office door for periods of time either to catch up on her own work or to eat lunch. When she tried it, she realized that her staff could handle things when she was not there to answer questions and that they could wait until she was available. More important, Kay got back the time she needed for herself. These two actions had a direct effect on her weight and energy. By eating lunch when she was hungry, carving out her own time in her office, and reducing her hours, Kay was able to make better food choices. Over the course of a year, she slowly lost the weight she had gained. The combination of reality checking and eating on a regular basis helped stabilize her body and mind.
These kinds of adjustments, along with good food choices, are going to help us ride the waves of worry. As we have seen throughout this book, bringing awareness to when our eating patterns went awry is a first step toward getting back on track. Remember, it is important when you are doing any kind of self-examination to be both conscious and compassionate. That means recognizing that things need to change but not berating yourself for making poor choices because of worry or fear. When we need to make changes, we have to be on our own side-that is, be our own best advocate as we take steps forward.
If you are struggling with your food choices, look at the following questions to see if you can pinpoint when and why your eating habits changed. Take a few deep inhales and exhales before you begin.
- When did you start to notice your eating habits begin to change?
- When did you first notice it?
- How long ago was it?
- What time of year or month was it?
- Can you remember what events were happening during that time?
- Describe those circumstances. Were they personal or professional?
- What was your response at that time to those situations?
- As you think abour it now, how are you feeling?
- Is there something you need to address or change now that would help you feel better?
- What would that be?
You can always go to the Three Cs section of this chapter and look at them to help you come up with some solutions if you need them. If you find yourself in the middle of a bad eating or drinking episode and want to put on the brakes quickly, look at the following four-step method. I created this technique to help people take back control when their behavior was feeling out of control. This process will help you make the connection between what you are choosing and what you are feeling.
|Worried Sick (2010)|
|Find Your Inner Voice (2009)|