To tackle disordered eating, whether during a crisis or not, we must understand why we’re overeating, then take steps to break the cycle of anxiety, shame and sadness that characterizes the disorder. One way to do that, studies have shown, is through something I think we can all especially benefit from: self-compassion.
First, we must understand who overeats, and why. Researchers know that people who struggle with emotional eating and binge eating have trouble calming down when faced with conflict and upsetting feelings — emotions that are in even greater supply during a pandemic. “Those who emotionally eat may be overwhelmed with emotions like anxiety, shame or sadness,” said Marcella Cox, a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of emotional eating. Turning to food is one way to distract from and cope with these unpleasant feelings, she said, rather than confront them.
Such behavior can be comforting, at least temporarily. “For individuals predisposed to binge eating, overeating releases dopamine, a 'feel-good' chemical in the brain that elicits pleasure,” said Jennifer Lombardi, a certified eating disorder psychotherapist at Kaiser Permanente in Stockton, Calif. But once these warm and cozy feelings fade, shame reemerges, as does the urge to overeat, leading to a troubling cycle.
Self-compassion can help disrupt this cycle in three ways: by validating the feelings that lead to emotional eating, by soothing the body and mind, and by dismantling the shame that comes with the disorder.
How self-compassion validates our feelings
Even if we can’t change our circumstances, according to Ann Saffi Biasetti, a clinical psychotherapist who specializes in treating eating disorders, “self-directed kindness can help us notice and accept our struggles.”
Right now, those struggles can include anxiety about our health and the health of our loved ones, especially those who are elderly or immunocompromised; concerns about our financial situations; difficulty obtaining food; worries about how the lockdown is affecting our children emotionally and educationally; and general boredom and restlessness.
To help her patients acknowledge their distress, Biasetti uses a self-compassion exercise. “I ask my patients to place a hand somewhere on their body that feels safe and comforting,” she said. Next, Biasetti asks them to take deep breaths and recite something like: “Out of fairness, this is a moment of suffering, and I acknowledge how hard it is.”
Simply noticing and acknowledging one’s struggles can settle distressing emotions, Bisaetti said.
How self-compassion soothes the mind and body
Using self-compassion to deal with emotions can calm the emotional and physical stress that fuels unhealthy eating behavior, Bisaetti said. Consider recent research, published in the journal Appetite. For the study, 60 British women ages 18 to 50 who suffered from eating disorders completed a series of questionnaires that asked about their eating behavior, mental health, and tendency toward self-criticism and self-compassion. Half of the study participants used a self-compassion-guided meditation to cope with their negative emotions, while the other half used a self-critical strategy.
The researchers found that the women who completed the self-compassion exercise reported less desire to overeat than those who did not complete the meditation. In an email interview, Lucy Serpell, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University College London and lead author of the study, said, “It was surprising and promising to find that a brief self-compassion exercise can impact people’s emotions, as well as the amount they ate.”
Of course, that study wasn’t done under the kind of circumstances we are caught in. The never-ending bad news and mounting worries of the coronavirus crisis can catapult the body into the “fight or flight” response, a stressful state of arousal that can cause muscle tension and shallow breathing. Studies indicate that this state can lead to overeating, as well as high blood pressure and mental health concerns.
Researchers have found, however, that self-directed kindness can ease the flight-or-fight response as well. “When individuals show themselves warmth and compassion, the soothing part of the brain is activated,” Serpell said. And once the body relaxes, the knot of tough emotions begins to settle, which helps people think more clearly about their eating behavior and make healthier choices.
How self-compassion dismantles shame
Third, self-compassion can both expose and challenge the shame that disordered eating generates. In another study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers examined the connection between shame, self-compassion and disordered eating. According to the study results, shame predicted an increase in disordered eating behavior, while feelings of self-compassion eased the distressing feeling.
“Our culture creates a toxic environment where dieting and obsessing about thinness can flourish,” Lombardi said. And when we’re all sheltering in place, we may be more prone to scroll through social media and compare ourselves with others who might seem to be having an easier time eating well and staying fit than we are. "People who struggle with their relationship to food may see themselves as lacking willpower or view their behavior as a moral failing,” said Rachel Cole, a certified intuitive eating counselor.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is an exercise in shame resilience. One way to do it is to talk to ourselves the same way we would speak to a friend. For example, Lombardi encourages patients to “write down the unfiltered things they might tell themselves if they got a speeding ticket.” Then she asks them to imagine saying those things aloud to a loved one who has made the same mistake.
Doing this exercise can illuminate how negative self-talk perpetuates poor eating patterns. Flipping the narrative around leads to reminding ourselves that all humans struggle at times, and that no one is “bad” for eating too much. Self-compassion can help us realize that many people have an issue with food, said Cole.
While self-compassion exercises may help lessen our desire to overeat, it’s important to remember that some forms of disordered eating, such as binge eating disorder, often require treatment from a medical team, including a psychotherapist, a nutritionist and a physician. The National Eating Disorders Association, Psychology Today and Overeaters Anonymous have resources to help you find a therapist or a support group. But showing empathy toward ourselves and our struggles, which is something we could all benefit from right now, is the first step toward healing.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and health writer in San Francisco.