Psychological Issues in Over-eating: Is Genuine Relief Possible?
A recent blog on Rebound Weight Gain, that focused on physiological aspects of weight loss, also briefly mentioned psychological issues as well. In general, years of clinical experience as well as increasing research data indicates that over-eating is one way that people often reduce tension, anxiety, stress, or depression. There is temporary comfort and relief for such folks when they eat, such that food becomes a means of “self-medicating”. Foods of choice in this process are often high in carbohydrates, sugars, sometimes salt as well. Some observers even call such food choices “addictive”, widely known as “comfort food”.
To be clear, and less blaming, these choices are not entirely deliberate, strategic, or thought-out. They often begin early in life, perhaps due to modeling by one or both parents or older sibs, nutritional habits in the family, and/or accidental choices that establish new behavior patterns. One young woman for example, revealed how she began to eat sweets on Sunday nights as a way to relieve significant anxiety she felt about attending elementary school on Monday; her anxieties were related to both academic pressures and peer struggles, prompting binges. Another man of Italian-American descent had a family very centered on pastas and other carbohydrates, on a daily basis, as well as for all celebratory occasions. One woman, very “addicted” to salty foods, especially carbs, grew up in a disorganized, chaotic family with parents who were in a highly conflicted marriage. The latter two individuals struggled with obesity their entire adult lives. The first woman alternated between binge eating, severe constriction of her food intake, and some drug use as well.
In each of these situations, there were deeper issues in these families that had not been acknowledged or addressed. More specifically, there were parents who were themselves trapped in unhappy marriages and other relationships that lacked genuine nurturing. The man above also experienced severe conflicts with his two siblings that went entirely unmonitored or supervised by parents. The woman addicted to salty foods was also the victim of childhood sexual abuse, a trauma that had remained out of her awareness for decades. More genuine nurturing was absent for these individuals during their earlier development. Their use, and misuse, of food was a non-deliberate attempt to gain some relief. Unfortunately, this effort provides powerful relief – temporarily – so that the person becomes highly focused on food, and highly motivated to continue the patterns of over-eating.
Individualized psychotherapy, carefully attuned to each individual and their own issues, family history, and struggles is an effective way to identify these deeper issues. More genuine and ongoing relief – more constructive ways of coping – can develop through the support of an experienced and caring therapist. It is often not a simple “quick fix”, as the difficulties are long-standing, and sometimes quite intense, but the benefits are well worth the effort when these deeper issues are acknowledged, addressed, and relieved in more constructive ways.
Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Torrance, CA. A member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, he can be reached at 310 539-2772 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2019 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.