Step Away From the Donut: The Perils of Emotional Eating

As far back as breast or formula feeding, most of us learned that a sweet taste meant care and comfort. As we grew into more grown up foods, we generally learn to equate certain goods with comfort. Our parents picked up on these foods and would offer them as treats. Ice cream, anyone?

Somewhere deep in our subconscious most of us learn to connect food – at least certain types of food – with nurturing, comfort and solace. Caregivers, stressed to the max from trying to stay ahead of the needs of elders or others who depend on their care, often turn to food to comfort themselves or to relax. There tends to be a "I deserve this" mentality, and caregivers do, indeed, deserve to be pampered somehow. It's human and actually very good to want to comfort ourselves when we are stressed or even bored.

Cabin Fever and Stress Eating

Picture this: a middle aged woman at home caring for her elderly mother who has stage three Alzheimer's. The daughter who is the primary caregiver knows she is fortunate to have a husband who earns a good living, enabling her to care for her mother at home, full time. However, day after day goes by and the daughter doesn't have any time for herself. She doesn't have any "me" time when she isn't on call because of her mother's needs. This can lead to resentment, even if it's subconscious.

While the caregiver's mother may not need active attention every minute of the day and night, the mother does need supervision. The daughter eventually becomes stressed from feeling cooped up without the option to leave the house. She is bored, as her mother's communication is limited and repetitive. The caregiving daughter has little interaction with the outside world.

She knows she is fortunate to be able to stay home and care for her mother. She feels guilty for her occasional resentful feelings about her situation, since she knows many other people would love an option like hers. The only thing that seems brings her comfort is food.

Lately there have been studies pointing to the fact that middle-aged women are prone to eating disorders. I'd like to see statistics on how many of those women are caregivers. We see questions on the AgingCare.com forum from women who have gained considerable weight during the months or years they've been caregiving. Many have gradually turned from seeking occasional comfort from food to what may be a full-blown food addiction. Food becomes to them the only realistic way that they can relieve their stress.

Lose the Guilt. My feelings about this common problem are that caregivers who are "self-medicating" with food must first let go of guilt. If there are feelings of resentment for being tied to caregiving, the resentment is a clue that the caregiver needs to get some outside help. This could come in the form of an in-home care agency sending a paid caregiver to the home for a specified number of hours, or finding an adult day care service for the elder.

Many elders thrive with these additions to their care, as they too can get tired of the same routine day in and day out. They too can need more social interaction. Don't let guilt keep you from seeking outside help. And don't let guilt for occasional negative feelings toward your situation take you down. Negative feelings are just that – feelings. They are human.

Find a Replacement For Food. Try to replace the idea that you "deserve" that extra helping of ice cream because you are so tired and stressed that you need a treat, with a non-food treat. That "treat" can be one of the solutions mentioned above – extra help so you can get out – or it can be some material object you've been wanting, or some down time in front of the TV. Yes, I know exercise would be healthier, but we can't always tackle everything at once. But there are ways

Find a New Reward. Try to replace, in your mind, the way you reward yourself. A void will eventually be filled with something. If we deny ourselves the reward of unhealthy food, we need to replace that thinking with something else or our good intentions won't last long. As with so many things, attitude is paramount. If we can switch our idea of a reward from food to a talk with a friend, a good movie, a book or magazine or some positive and reinforcing form of exercise, that void can get filled. Many people in Overeaters Anonymous fill that void with faith in a Higher Power and with friends who have similar issues. You may want to seek out a group of caregivers who have a similar problem, or you may want to join one of the support groups for overeaters in general. Most of us do better when we get encouragement from others.

Don't Think Diet….Think Health. Try to replace the "I deserve this treat" with thoughts that "I deserve to be healthy." Order a DVD that teaches dance steps, yoga or some other appealing exercise. Your elder may even get a kick out of watching you do the exercises. It's a start.

Don't think diet, think health. Believe that you deserve good health and that eating well is a huge part of that. We've all read diet ideas about keeping munchies like carrots handy. Good advice. But most of us willingly reach behind the carrots for the leftover cheese cake, anyway. We need to be kind to ourselves and realistic.

Keep an Eating Diary. Make notes when you eat. Did that extra ice cream make you feel good? If so, for how long? Did it really relax you? For how long? Did you spend the rest of the evening feeling bad about yourself? Was that treat worth the after effects?

Don't Just Write in the Diary…Read It. Read your notes over the next time you decide you deserve a treat. Read them over two or three times. Then, if you still want the treat, eat it. Don't dwell on it as a failure. Eat it, enjoy it and then consider if it really helped or if the good feeling was transient. Awareness can be a huge motivator.

Enlist the Help of Your Family. Enlist the help of your spouse or partner if he or she is sympathetic to your issue. Your mate wants to keep you healthy for a long time. It's not just your elder who counts. You want a future. A healthy you will mean a happier you, which will make you a better caregiver now, and most likely ensure a longer, happier life for your future.

None of this is easy. Whether a person has trouble eating at all because stress diminishes the appetite, or a person overeats to get comfort, health can be affected. Just deciding one time that we will change our ways isn't enough. We need to decide again each day – or each minute – whether we will change how we think about our body and our reward system and renew our commitment to this change.

Remember that you are not alone in your struggle. Try to find a sympathetic person or group to support you, and find something – anything healthy – to substitute for food when you need a reward. It will take time, but you can do it. If you don't find a way, you may not be there to care for you elder when he or she needs you most. Beyond that, you deserve to be healthy and as happy as you can be.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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