How to Find Comfort Without Relying on Food
By Cynthia J. Turner, PhD
Everyone eats for comfort now and then. Buying a special meal as a pick-me-up after an exhausting day at work or splurging on a slice of cake when you’re feeling upset or anxious are small ways to cope with the stress of living. The problem is that this type of coping mechanism is addictive and can become a habit because you can grow to rely on food to soothe and calm yourself.
But keep in mind, that if food did not bring relief and comfort to us, and if we did not have hunger or cravings, we would not eat or survive. These complex emotional and physical mechanisms have ensured that through all the thousands of years that we have been on the planet, we eat enough food to sustain growth, energy, and our immune systems. In the past 50 years, these systems have been corrupted by so-called "nutrient-free foods or ultra-processed foods," which provide calories, but do not provide an appropriate level of nutrients to sustain a healthy body. However, due to their intense, satisfying taste, they have practically taken over at restaurants and grocery stores. It is important to recognize that moving away from these foods can be difficult, and replacement behaviors and new coping mechanisms are different habits that will take time to learn.
Finding fresh strategies for management of stress, fatigue, pain, and mood issues takes some time. We must first recognize that we have become desensitized to whole and healthful foods, and give ourselves the time and patience to reset our systems. Learning additional ways to shop and cook can be a way to comfort our loss and fears related to giving up highly processed foods. Coping mechanisms do not need to be complex, however, and micro or brief interventions can bring major changes in moods and stress levels in very short periods of time. Examples of these interventions include very brief walks in nature. Walking outside for even 1-2 minutes has been shown to lower blood pressure and stress levels. Certainly, longer walks of 10-15 minutes can dramatically reset your system. Focus on and become aware of nature, including plants, trees, clouds, sky, animals and birds. If you have more time available, you can look on the Internet for a list of adult activities, which can range from sedentary activities to very active sports.
In the past few years, we have seen the emergence of a keen interest in animals, particularly dogs and cats, as creatures who have the ability to reset our fight or flight system, i.e. the part of our brain that looks for danger and alerts us by raising our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels. Service dogs are now being trained specifically as emotional support animals for individuals with specific issues such as PTSD, and this approach is very powerful. The animal can be helpful in shutting down compulsive thinking and cravings for junk or fast foods and re-direct someone to more positive activities such as playing, walking, or even just talking to your animal.
Music is also very powerful, as are mindfulness approaches. If you find a mindfulness teacher you enjoy, a CD, podcast, or You Tube video can be a soothing presence in the background which can move you towards relaxation and letting go of obsessional thinking.