Staying Present: Seeds of Truth to Manage Anxious Eating

I recently had an appointment with a client I’ll call Tom, who, try as he may to control his weight, has several moments throughout his workday where he seemingly uncontrollably, puts food in his mouth as a response to stress. It’s like his conscious mind checks out and some hedonistic, anxiety relieving alter ego steps in, telling him in soothing tones that it is OK to shove that cookie in his mouth or to eat to the point of dullness. In fact he deserves it for all he accomplished that day. He’s been good, even working out this morning, so what’s another cookie or an extra helping of food going to do?

Apparently, it can do quite a bit. In fact, these little episodes are exactly the reason Tom has not been able to achieve his health goals. Because, as anyone who has ever endeavored to change their eating habits knows, it’s not just a cookie or an extra helping of food that’s the problem, but rather, the cascade of negative mental chatter that happens subsequent to faltering on your personal intentions that really sabotages your best efforts. These nutritional landslides can start with one fleeting anxious thought or feeling, that takes you out of your zone, dangling the cookie of reward in front of your face, taking you down the habituated response of eating to escape a moment of stress.

But these moments are also opportunities for understanding something about ourselves if we stay open to them. If we can stop covering up the anxiety with food, and stay present to the feelings, these moments can provide seeds of information that can not only help us with our eating, but can likely shed some light on other aspects of our lives as well, as I am reminded of since my return from Mont Blanc.

Since returning from what was probably my favorite vacation experience of all time, I’ve noticed a few things have evolved. One is that I can’t stop walking! When I leave the office I walk to the furthest subway stop I can before hoping on the train for home and on the way in, I get off at the first possible stop and walk the rest of the way. I am walking like Forrest Gump ran. Just last night I walked two hours to meet a friend, a distance that would have taken me about 30 minutes by train but was much more enjoyable on foot. The rhythmic quality of setting one foot in front of the other has a meditative aspect to it that is helping me to see clearly the second thing that I have noticed since returning home: I miss the community that was created on the mountain.

My community of friends on Mont Blanc: Jim, Me, Nancy, Frank, Tim, Debra and Dave

New York is my favorite city in the world, but for a childless, single person, it is not the easiest place to form a community. I have loads of amazing friends but most of them live outside the city and those that are here, are dealing with their own lives and challenges because NY is not the easiest place to make it. Yet I am sure we all agree that the effort is mostly worth it. Because the city attracts a huge amount of people from diverse and disparate cultures, added to the fact that the energy of the city is so harried and rushed, making some of us self-protected and perhaps somewhat closed off, it can be quite a challenge to authentically connect with people who share your attitudes and beliefs, interests and goals. Despite such a dense and diverse pool of candidates, it is a little more difficult to connect. And this sense of isolation can be uncomfortable, that is, if I take the time to recognize it for what it is and not mistake it for something else.

On a recent Friday, after finishing up fairly late in the day, I decided to yet again, take a long walk before heading home. It was my first Friday back and I hadn’t made plans in order to tackle the pile of chores that had accumulated over the two weeks I was away. As I meandered, I thought about the never-ending list awaiting me, and none of it felt like the fun thing to do. And since it was Friday night, that’s what I was looking for: fun. Or so I thought. So, I went through my mental list of possibilities for solitary entertainment and came up with:

  • Take a Physique 57 class
  • Go to a movie
  • Take myself to a nice dinner and have a glass of wine

Guess which felt the most appealing? Bingo! Dinner and wine. But I also knew that coming off the heels of a gastronomically challenging vacation, on top of the expense of a fancy meal, not to mention the dullness that would set in with a glass of wine, dinner and wine was not my best option. So I decided to keep walking, dive into the feeling and think about what I was actually wanting in that moment that I thought food could provide.

The tendency to escape discomfort is hardwired. We are born to run from pain and seek out pleasure. I do it, you do it, every human being on the planet does it, which is why obesity is on the rise, alcoholism and drug addiction run rampant and there is so much unhappiness in the world. We are not facing our problems, and instead we are numbing ourselves from a truth that our ego finds so frightening, that it has to self-destruct the host in order to not know it.

Eating, dining, and drinking are great pleasures when enjoyed for what they are: opportunities to not only nourish ourselves but also “break bread” and connect with other people. But when used as an escape from life, they can have damaging results. Had I taken myself to a nice restaurant and allowed myself to be swallowed up into the sensory overload that comes from eating and drinking, I would not have instead walked my way into a greater understanding of what I was really looking for in that moment. It wasn’t food or wine that I wanted. It was to connect to someone and in some way, be soothed. I was looking for the sense of connection and community I had spent two weeks enjoying on the mountain.

Staying present to uncomfortable situations and feelings is a powerful practice that can open up a world of information to you, not only about frustrating eating habits, but also about life itself. These moments are opportunities to gain insight as to what is important to you, what you are most afraid of and that which may be your greatest desire. Because these feelings can be frightening, we have cultivated ways in which to distract ourselves from them in order to not delve too deeply and upset our fragile egos. We behave in ways that often don’t line up to our highest goals and aspirations, covering up our truth by creating other painful, yet less immediate distractions, like the self loathing that comes from over-eating or carrying extra weight, or the guilt of escaping into a glass of wine, or for some people, drugs.

Next time you find yourself feeling tempted to check out emotionally with food, alcohol, medication or other escapist behavior, instead allow yourself to be in the moment. Put the food down and sit with the sadness or anxiety, or whatever the discomfort might be. Just allow it into the moment. You might find that the food you were about to put into your mouth was actually an attempt at shoving down as far as possible the realization that you hate your job and that it is time to move on. Or that your relationship has some cracks in the façade that need to be looked at and fixed. Sure, these are scary things to address, but they are also real and won’t go away just because you temporarily numb yourself to their truth with food or alcohol. They will still be there, under the disappointment you now also feel for letting yourself down. And the cycle will only repeat itself. The core issue, that which makes you want to eat and drink in the first place, will not be annihilated through your consumption. The problem will be there anyway. Scary as it is to face it, better to get to it sooner rather than later before you damage your health or self esteem in an effort to not see.

Fozzy, Ian, Peter, Gill, Rowena and I, celebrating at the end of the trail.
Fozzy, Ian, Peter, Gill, Rowena and I, celebrating at the end of the trail.

As I walked and my thoughts crystallized, helping me see that what I wanted was to connect with someone that matters to me, I called up one of my best friends who happened to be heading downtown for a yoga class. So I pivoted and walked down to meet her. We then took a long walk through the Manhattan night and caught up on each other’s lives. On the way downtown, I got an email from a Mont Blanc friend with information on a reunion hike we are planning in England in December, which allowed me to see that perhaps I am creating a community, albeit a far-flung global one. The night was perfect and was exactly what I needed. Had I escaped into a nice meal, rather than sit with my feelings, I would not have known this and I would not have been able to connect in a more meaningful way with someone that matters deeply to me, nor would I have truly recognized the value of the reunion hike. It was a perfect way to spend a Friday night.

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A Fall Recipe: Carrot Tarragon Soup!

As we head deeper into Fall and then Winter,emotional eating can be a little more challenging to manage and change. That is why it is important to nourish yourself in a way that can help offset cravings in order to prevent the next episode of mindless eating. One way to do that is to incorporate root vegetables into your diet. Carrots are particularly good, as they are subtly sweet, loaded in nutrients and can help protect your immune function while stabilizing and balancing your brain. Here is one delicious way to prepare them: Carrot Tarragon Soup. It is one of my favorite recipes, and from what I have heard back from some of you, there are many of you who agree.