Stress, Food, and Mental Acrobatics

It seems like my life is constantly in a state of stressful flux. I like to say that my coping mechanisms can’t keep up with the new situations in my life, and I have a lot of coping mechanisms.

My relationship with stress is very much tied into my complex relationship with food. Growing up in the Midwest, life revolves around food. If you want to meet people somewhere, it’s going to be a restaurant. Every celebration has a cake or cookies or pie, and when you get sick, you are nursed back to health with ice cream and soda.

Adding on to that is a heaping helping of religion. Southern Baptists are generally known for their bigotry, but I will say they almost make up for it in cooking skills. In addition to the southern style potlucks and Bible studies packed with sweets, psychologically they don’t really have a lot of vices to turn to. Alcohol and drugs are out of the question. Sex is right out. Watching most types of media, listening to music, anything that might be lewd or contain cursing is to be ignored at the cost of your mortal soul. The options for self-medication are limited.

Food was our primary coping mechanism, but for all of the stress that couldn’t be buried away in pizza, there were books and video games. Even within our meager means I was never without one or the other. I used to read books so big and old they would have to be re-bound from the wear of bouncing around in my backpack, and get lost in fiction so ferociously that the first sentence I said when I was told my dad died was, “Pokémon starts in five minutes.”

This Book
Books, not diamonds, are a girl’s best friend.

Transitioning into adulthood with this propensity for escapism, I started to become curious as to what a healthy relationship with stress, food, and fiction should be.

As I learned what it was to be healthy, I started to realize that my fight against the culture I had grown up in was less about making healthy choices and more about changing my perspective on what choices were available.

My body is a simple animal. If I wanted a pastry, I would it eat. It’s like my body is a whiny, tired child who only asks for one simple thing to make the day go by; ice cream. I feel like a monster when I try to tell it, “No, I will not give you the one thing you desire.” So, I spoil myself, knowing the long term outcome is a net loss for my overall health. A dopamine rush goes a long way to making it through the day.

But I can’t keep on this way. As the saying goes, “getting drunk is just borrowing happiness from tomorrow.” Eating is no different, except maybe the scale on which the time is borrowed. I realized I would have to play dirty to convince my body to play along. If I wanted a pastry, I would have to find something; anything, to hate about it. “It’s too crumbly, I can’t eat something so crumbly!” I’d go to great lengths to imagine myself eating that crumbly thing and think of how disgusted I would be with all the mess, how much effort it would take to clean up, how much time would be wasted just to eat the thing. It worked. My body just resigned to its general posture of laziness and said, “Too much work, I don’t want it anymore.”

But I started having to enact these mental acrobatics more and more often to keep up. I started telling myself I hated pizza, then ice cream, then desserts, then bread – I hate all of these foods, no exceptions. I started to swing to the other end of the spectrum. I’d never realized how much food there was to hate! But I couldn’t sustain all that hate. Sometimes, I just couldn’t find a reason to hate that fatty piece of meat or that milky, creamy latte. And, what my body can’t be talked out of, my body will have.

My cravings were intense. I had been known to drive an hour just for a taste of a special chocolate or stop my entire day to go to the mall and get a pretzel dog with cheese. I knew I was at the behest of my cravings, but somehow I found in them a source of pride. I would tell stories of the great lengths I would go to in order to appease them as funny anecdotes at parties. People laughed. I felt relieved that they weren’t shuddering in fear. If it was funny, it must be okay.

Pretzel Dog 2
Even just looking at it makes me want to quit my job.

I was ashamed, so deeply ashamed to admit that I was an emotional eater. I tried to justify it by saying that I don’t eat when I’m happy or sad, I only eat when I’m stressed, as if stress eating was not emotional eating. Whatever the cause, the justification held up for years.

My life became so stressful and I couldn’t turn to anything else but food. I am a human. I needed to use my tools. Food was my hammer, chisel, knife, and whetstone. I’d binge eat when I was binge playing games, dual wielding my vices like the warriors I’d imagine myself to be in those worlds. Nothing could bring me to a point of balance.

I finally admitted to myself that I was addicted to gaming, and that one admission made it easier for me to admit I was an emotional eater, as well. But I couldn’t face the shame, even if I could accept that it was the truth. I needed another feat of mental acrobatics; I needed to trick myself into getting help.

So, I did some research. I wanted to learn why my body was responding to threats with a compulsion to eat. Surely, a threatened animal out in the wild wouldn’t hunker down and eat. No, the body is supposed to respond to incredibly stressful situations with a fight or flight response, which is actually a hunger suppressant.

Have a mint, buddy
Pictured: me dealing with daily life.

So why was I beholden to food? Where was this desire coming from? The only answer I could surmise was that not all threats are biologically the same. Evolutionarily, threats can range from anything to direct threats (like being attacked by a predator) or to long term threats (like starvation). The responses to these stimuli are very different. Direct threats are physical – they have an instant result and an instant need to shift the body’s processes. Long term threats are more psychological. They can be affected by the mere perception of scarcity or the mere mention of insecurity.

There is an emotional component to that type of biological threat. And that must be, biologically, the type of threat my body is responding to. It’s not as simple as fight or flight, yes or no. My body is trying to tell me it doesn’t see an end to this problem, and that we need to prepare for a bad potential future.

And how do we prepare for it? Eat. Store fat. In the event that something bad goes down, my body wants me to know that it will be able to sustain me through that hardship. So when I give my body something fatty, it begs for more.

Ultimately, it’s kind of sweet. Kind of touching. My body wants to ensure that I survive, and in that, I can’t fault its method. If that is the true heart of my stress eating, a need for self-preservation, then stress eating is less of a disorder and more of boon.

Once I realized that my body was attempting to help me instead of hurt me, I could finally accept that I truly did have a problem. I was able to give myself mental breathing room; not blame myself for all the times that I had “been weak” and eaten food that was bad for me. The blame shifted to compassion, and I could finally see the problem for what it truly is; an evolutionary holdover. A vestigial neural pathway coupled with a hormonal process that was no longer necessary today.

And with that, I knew that I could re-program myself, with help, to find some sort of balance. I’m not in a state of long term threat. Modernity has its fair share of challenges and daily stresses; but fat is not the solution to any of these.

I don’t have all the answers, but this concept of mental breathing room has started showing up in many different areas of my life, and I’m grateful for the perspective and clarity it allows me to see. It’s a place I can return to with sound logic even in the midst of the emotional shame spirals that accompany stress, body image issues, and addiction. And once I get to that place, I can finally stop for a second to breathe, and gain my bearings to find a way forward.

Photo Credits: Get rich by eating by Raul Lieberwirth
This Book by Bob AuBuchon
Pretzel Dog 2 by Jessica and Lon Binder
Have a mint, buddy by Daniele Nicolucci

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Interested in many things, but nothing captivates more than technology, entrepreneurship, futurism, and humanity's quest to problem-solve.