Several years ago, a friend introduced me to a book called, "Living With A Black Dog: His Name Is Depression." If you're not familiar with the book, it's written for adults, but in the format of a children's book, making it extremely simple, yet clear. It really resonated with me and the Intuitive Eating class I was teaching at that time.
So what does this have to do with Intuitive Eating? Depression and anxiety are often at the core of a distorted relationship with food.
Food can be a source of comfort when dealing with painful emotions because it's sensory by nature, there is a physical act involved in the eating process, and it creates a sense of completion in mind and body once an eating experience comes to an end. Emotional eating isn't necessarily bad or wrong. Food inherently has emotional connections. What's problematic is when food is repeatedly used to numb, avoid, or distract from other needs that are not being met. The needs that are not being met continue to be neglected and it's difficult to exit a cycle of depression and anxiety. Rather than distracted consumption of food, intentional presence in your entire food process can have a healing effect not only on your food life, but also on your mental health.
It's my experience with my own depression and anxiety that placing more of my attention on my food wants, needs, and desires has a grounding effect. Specifically, preparing my own food is helpful rather than eating something someone else has prepared. If like me, you are sensitive to the energy, process, and quality of how something was prepared you will notice a particular healing quality to being present in your own food preparation process. It's like taking on the role of stepping outside of yourself to look after yourself.
If you've read other bits of my content, you may already know that I have personal history of anxiety and depression, but not a disordered relationship with food. I have been lucky to keep my food boundaries intact even when I felt incredibly vulnerable in other ways. While it can't fix anxiety or depression, it can be helpful to improve one's sense of personal power to inspect an area of your life where you are good at something and see if you can generalize your process and apply it to an area of your life you find challenging. For example, I am fairly good at and find it quite easy to organize things, people, and information. Ironically, I can be easily overwhelmed by large projects or new systems. Moving house or starting a new job are two things I can become quite overwhelmed by, but if I stay present in the now, which can be challenging with anxiety, and apply my organizational skills, it then becomes manageable.
Can you think of an area you excel at and apply it to your food process? I apply my organizational skills to my food life as well. If you have read "One Simple Thing..." you know that I am an advocate for using a menu planner to center my food process.
If you'd like to learn more about my mental health story, keep reading...
I was eleven the first time I can remember experiencing my first round of intense anxiety. I was in fifth grade and I can't recall what triggered it, but I can very distinctly recall staying home from school for a week because I had such a bad stress tummy. After that I was okay for a long time. There may have been short episodes here and there, but I can't really remember.
The next clear memory I have of an anxiety round was in my early 20's. I had recently started college and was coping with the loss of a long-term relationship. I still wasn't knowledgeable enough at the time to name what I was feeling, but it didn't really matter because it would not have changed it. I can remember how affected I was by what I now know to be "morning anxiety." From the time the alarm went off in the morning I was immediately confronted with the feeling that I needed to deal with every possible real and imagined event, situation, and interaction all in my first waking breath. By the time I had used the toilet, showered and eaten breakfast, I was already exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally from dealing with the contrived events of the day. For any one potentially real event, I had already "been through it" ten or more times in my head, leaving me little to no energy for the real thing. I struggled on and eventually found a place of connection in the department of dance at the university I was attending.
I had grown up taking ballet lessons, but never really felt passionate about it. In high school I was in the modern dance company and loved it, so it made sense to me to try to reconnect with something that brought me into my body and out of my head. Anxiety is so cruel in the way it creates disassociation from a present, whole-body experience. Modern dance embodied full-body presence in it's ultimate form for me at the time. I was lucky because I was able to find healing in this connection and my body cooperated. I went on to minor in dance and graduate with a bachelor's degree during with time I had the honor or performing at the Kennedy Center as an American College Dance Festival outstanding performer nominee.
After graduating from college, Shea and I got married, and again I was struck with a round of raging anxiety. I had insomnia so bad that I was struggling with functioning during the day. Somehow I muddled through and it lifted.
The next round happened in my late 20's when my sister drank drain cleaner and was in intensive care for several months before eventually dying. This time I was working at a university where I had access to free counselling and psychological services, so I accessed them. It was the first time in my life I officially was receiving mental health help. It made a huge difference in my ability to keep functioning.
Whenever I'm in the thick of an anxiety cycle in my life, the overwhelming symptom I experience is a feeling that I can't breath. To make matters even more challenging, I am a movement teacher and have a strong understanding of breathing and it's connection to our emotional state. Secretly, I kept wishing I had asthma instead because it felt more socially acceptable than having raging anxiety and panic attacks.
In the thick of a cycle my confidence in most areas of life really suffers, which creates more symptoms and isolation.
In college when I started dancing, I was lucky because my body cooperated. I am now forty and the most recent round of anxiety has lasted about three years. This time has been particularly difficult. My body has not been terribly cooperative, leaving me at times in a hyper-vigilant cycle of trying, unsuccessfully, to "fix" the way I feel with movement. Understandably, for a while this kind of "wrecked" my relationship with movement. I am now beginning to find joy in movement again--Yoga, hiking, lifting weights, walking, biking, and any thing else that sparks my interest. It has taken a while to repair my relationship with moving and it required me letting it go for a bit and focusing my attention elsewhere.
I don't have a perfect solution to manage my anxiety and depression and sometimes it is still really jarring the way it can spontaneously appear out of seemingly nowhere. I have learned what does help me though...
-Focusing on my food life
-Gentle movement, then moving on to something else
-Work for the sake of work without being attached to the outcome
-Rituals (tea, laundry, cleaning, making muffins)
-Medication at times
-Talking to a friend
-Talking to a counselor
-Decreasing my sensory input
-Lowering my expectations
-Learning something new
-Listening deeply to someone else
Explore if your eating experiences are primarily triggered by emotions or physical hunger in my free resource "Emotional vs. Physical Hunger". Click the image to access the handout in my free resource library.
See you soon for more Intuitive Eating.
Yours In Health,
E. Tribole & E. Resch. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York. 2003.
M. Johnstone. Living With A Black Dog: His Name Is Depression. Kansas City. 2006.