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When Food Is Comfort
Q and A with author Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT
Current brain science shows that a lack of consistent emotional nurturance in infancy and childhood, when the brain is being formed, can result in difficulties with self-regulation, causing us to seek comfort and nurturance outside ourselves, often in substances, like food, and behaviors such as overeating. The good news is that our history is not our destiny and the brain can be rewired. In When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, author Julie M. Simon, explains that emotional overeaters can learn to self-nurture instead of turning to food for comfort, through the simple, easily masterable skills she offers. We hope you’ll enjoy this Q and A with Julie about the book. Were you an emotional eater? Tell us about how you came to do this work.
Yes. I know firsthand how frustrating overeating and gaining weight can be. I spent a good portion of my life stuck in a cycle of overeating comfort foods, gaining weight, and dieting. I definitely ate emotionally — I used food to calm and soothe myself. It helped numb the pain of unpleasant emotions, self-doubts and other negative thoughts, and general stress. Food altered my brain chemistry; and because food is pleasurable and exciting, it was a good distraction. It temporarily filled up an inner emptiness and a restlessness I regularly felt, a sort of spiritual hunger.
I entered adulthood missing many basic self-care skills, like the ability to move through unpleasant emotional states, comfort and soothe myself, reframe self-defeating thoughts and regulate my nervous system. While my parents were well-intentioned, they were also missing these skills. And to add insult to injury, I had inherited body and brain chemistry imbalances that made unhealthy comfort foods and stimulants, like caffeine, both attractive and addictive. It took many years of study, therapy, and visits to health care practitioners for me to understand and resolve all the pieces of the overeating puzzle in my own life. I’m passionate about recovery and I became a therapist and life coach because I wanted to help others resolve their eating challenges.
How do you know if you’re an emotional eater? Doesn’t everyone eat emotionally at times?
We all enjoy eating and will eat when not hungry, or overeat on occasion just because the food is incredibly tasty or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. The problem arises when we turn to food so often that we are overweight or our health is at risk. The truth is, if you regularly eat when you’re not hungry, choose unhealthy comfort foods, or eat beyond fullness, the bulk of your overeating or imbalanced eating is not just because you love food and enjoy eating. Something is out of balance somewhere. In the book, after the Introduction, readers will find an Emotional Eating Checklist that can be used to determine if their eating has an emotional component.
You talk about “mastering the skill of self-regulation.” Could you explain what self-regulation is?
Self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our emotions and moods, regulate our nervous system, control or redirect disruptive impulses and behaviors, and think before we act. In order for us to master this skill, the upstairs, logical and soothing part of the brain must be well connected or properly “wired” with the downstairs, emotional brain.
Is it really possible to rewire our brains?
In order for our brains to develop and connect the proper circuitry for self-regulation, we require attuned or “tuned-in” experiences with our early caregivers. These experiences help create secure attachments, activate certain pathways in the brain, strengthen existing connections, and enable new connections to be made. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself — to establish and dissolve connections between its different parts in response to experience. Our brain is an incredibly resilient and plastic (moldable) organ, and we continue to develop and expand our brain circuits throughout our lives. Research suggests that well into old age, our experiences (including attuned interactions with others and internal attunement via mindfulness practice) can actually change the physical structure of the brain.
You present a mindfulness practice you created called Inner Nurturing that can help us connect to ourselves in a nurturing way and rewire our brain. Please tell us more about this practice?
Inner nurturing comprises seven skills that help you regulate emotional arousal and calm your body. You’ll learn to pay attention to and validate your feelings, form an alliance with the wisest and most loving part of yourself, and get clear on your authentic needs. You’ll learn to reframe self-defeating thoughts, remind yourself of your strengths and resources, hold out hope for the future, and meet your needs without turning to food. As you learn to focus your attention in particular ways, you create new neural firing patterns that strengthen connections in the brain and your capacity for self-regulation.
Why is it so important to develop a supportive voice within? What does this have to do with rewiring the brain?
Becoming aware of your feelings, needs, and thoughts is a critical first step in terms of resolving emotional eating, but it isn’t enough, on its own, to create lasting behavioral change. You’ll need to learn how to stay with and process your feelings, reframe self-defeating thoughts, and meet your needs. For this you’ll need the help of an internal nurturing voice — a mature, wise, loving, validating, unconditionally kind, affirming, encouraging, soothing, comforting, protecting, hopeful, and always helpful voice.
Because many of us did not receive consistent, sufficient nurturance from caregivers as infants and small children, and perhaps still, as adults, have little contact with nurturing others, we have never fully internalized this voice. Without it, our very young feeling self is often running the show. Through therapy and contact with kind, nurturing people, it’s possible to “borrow” and practice a soothing voice in order to manage unpleasant feeling states and reframe self-defeating thoughts. This alone can create new neural circuitry, change your brain functioning for the better, and facilitate self-regulation.
How long does it take to learn to nurture ourselves, rewire our brains, and stop emotional eating?
It will take some time to learn and practice Inner Nurturing. Letting go of long-standing patterns of coping and ways of viewing ourselves that no longer serve us is not without challenge. Deep-seated emotions and deeply entrenched self-defeating thoughts are bound to surface. Self-doubt may be a regular companion. Setbacks can and will occur. But with continued practice, we will develop an inner nurturing voice and with it, the ability to comfort and soothe ourselves and regulate our nervous system and behaviors with ease. This approach requires a shift in thinking, a longer-term perspective, and a loving commitment to ourselves.
If you could offer just one piece of encouragement or advice to an emotional eater, what would it be?
Do not give up or lose hope. Refer to When Food is Comfort every day until the skills become second nature to you. Stay the course. Get professional assistance if you need it. I have no doubt that you can learn to nurture yourself mindfully, rewire your brain and end emotional eating.