Helena, a stunning beauty in her last year of high school is known to stress eat. Last week she burst into uncontrollable sobs during her session because she binge-ate a bucket of fried chicken, with all the fixings, as a result of earning a poor grade on an essay she submitted to her English teacher, prior to sending it off with the college application.
Helena has a long history of bouncing between anorexia (99 pounds) and bulimia (high weight of 160) on her 5’2″ frame. Although her past was grim, she has made remarkable progress and no longer restricts from eating, nor binge eats followed by purges (vomiting, laxatives, and over-exercising) instead, on the rare occasions she does binge, she’s learned to keep the food and let it digest through its natural digestive course. All good.
Helena also learned to evaluate and correct her behavior before, during and after a binge episode. We worked on the HALTS technique. She evaluates and corrects through HALTS questioning: Was I hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or stressed, rather than beating herself with shame and negative thoughts.
In this case, she hands-down knew she was stressed. And most important, she identified that her stress was rational not irrational. More good. For sure, she truly was experiencing stress. It was not make believe nor exaggerated.
Now knowing the source of her stress we could build on productive, healthy coping skills. We examined what she could do with her stress rather than indulging in inappropriate eating. Together we came up with a productive list of activities to restore her serenity, and in addiction, prevent the binge episode in the first place.
1. Exercise. Although Helena must be careful to not over exercise, or practice inappropriate exercise due to her history of bulimic exercise (as a way of burning through calories) movement is a good tool to alleviate or slow down her panic. A moderate thirty minute walk along the ocean (we live East near the Atlantic ocean) might be a sure way to bring instant calm back into her life. If you live out in the country perhaps a walk through the fields might be in order, or a park nearby, or any place that connects you to nature to restore that “feel-good” harmony.
2. Movie. When in a funk it may not be realistic to think you can study or complete a chore at hand, but turning to a comedy or a movie that takes you away from reality can alter the way you’re thinking and bring a light airy atmosphere leading you back to your harmonic center. Change your thoughts change your mind works. Watching a movie that takes you away from your reality can be just the quick fix you need to bring you back to calm.
3. Read. Thirty minutes spent lost in an engaging book can instantly turn you from stress to connecting to a whole other place. Reading shouldn’t be a book required for school or work, but rather a fun, light and airy book that takes you away from your current stress, which ultimately will do wonders for your mood. Often when we are in the thick of a stressful situation we think we don’t have time to do something as self-indulgent, carefree as reading a frivolous book, but that’s furthest from the truth. By reading for thirty minutes you’ll restore your calm and actually have a new-found adrenaline rush to do what is pressing, like revise an essay in Helena’s case.
4. Meditate. Many think they have to go to a meditation forum or study under a meditation guru in order to reach a quiet mind, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure those places exist and are awesome to attend but it isn’t the only way to reach your calm. Grab a chair outside, turn off your phone, or any gadget you have on you…spread your feet several inches apart…lean your head back against a wall, or high backing to the chair, and begin by taking in a slow deep breath to the count of five and hold it to the count of five…then gently breathe out to the count of five, and hold again to the count of five, then return to your normal cycle of breathing. Repeat this cycle three times and you’ll be amazed at how great you feel. You don’t have to think about anything in particular but if your mind wanders that’s okay too. Soon, within fifteen minutes you will ease into a nice space of serenity.
5. Pray. Often saying a series of childhood prayers, or talking with God, or your Divine Energy, restores calm instantly. If the idea of reaching or tapping into this Higher Intelligence doesn’t work for you then repeat a poem or a saying (mantra) that perhaps your grandmother, or a significant person in your life, taught you in your younger years. Some say the Serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change and the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. I found saying this prayer slowly one word, than two, and so on really worked for me. For example, God. God grant. God grant me. God grant me the…you get the gist. Repeat several times and watch the stress disappear.
6. Nap. There’s nothing more delicious than taking a nap in the middle of the day. Sometimes we just need to escape into dreamland and do nothing at all. A fifteen to thirty minute power nap can restore calm and serenity and prepare you to take on whatever was causing your stress almost without fail. A power nap works when you keep it short…if too long it will leave you groggy and guilty for not doing something productive, and for losing time.
7. Shower. It’s believed that water brings instant calm. Whether you take a swim, shower, or stand out in the rain (not when it’s thunder and lightening!) or soak in a hot bubble bath, you’ll experience instant relief. Water is soothing and cleansing. Think of it like washing off all the stress from your mind and body. After Helena’s binge she felt dirty and out of control, perhaps a swim in the pool, or a long hot shower would restore her to serenity removing her shame.
8. Gratitude. I suggested Helena put together a gratitude journal to explore all the good things in her life from: waking up, having breath, eyes to see, arms to hug, smiles to share, teeth to chew (this one she wasn’t to swift about!), and etc. We discussed the gratitude of food to eat…good healthy nourishing food and that food is not the enemy that it’s actually good for us, and that it’s the processed foods that lead to trouble. Helena thought intensely about this before bursting into a delightful laughter saying, “Yes, apples…I’m grateful for apples that come off the trees, and fish from the sea, and sweet potatoes from the earth..(all of which I remind patients of often” She was lit with gratitude, hope, and resolution, forgetting about her fried chicken binge and the essay, with all the red scribbles of corrections, embracing the moment knowing everything is going to be just fine. And it is…
9. Connections. Sometimes when life is hard, and you feel kicked to the dirt, all alone and empty inside, it’s at this low moment time to reach out and call someone or visit a friend. People need people. This is a tough one for a binge eater who is known to isolate when stressed or in a funk, but this is the most important time to reach out and touch someone through phone, text, email or hey maybe walk next door to your neighbors with fresh flowers you picked from your garden, and share a moment with them. You’ll be amazed how different you’ll feel after a little talking and gifting…
Not all stress is a bad thing and certainly life has deadlines and commitments that we are responsible for. I am in no means saying that Helena should forget about her essay and give up or that she didn’t have the right to feel her feelings of disappointment and overwhelm, but what I am saying is eating your feelings never works in the long haul. It is a temporary fix leaving you more hungry for resolution and more wound up then than prior to your food binge. Sometimes we just have to step away and take a breather from life so that we can jump back in refreshed and ready to take on whatever life hands us.
Question: What stress reducers work for best for you? Do you stress eat? If you never stress eat, I’d love to hear from you too.
Speaker, writer, licensed clinical psychotherapist, PhD in addiction psychology, eating disorder professional, hypnotherapist changing the view about compulsive eating one addict at a time.