In order to begin to get a handle on the relationship between eating and depression, you must first look at the concept of patterns. Patterns permeate our experience. Rituals, musical rhythms and seasonal changes are familiar patterns which give us a sense of belonging and predictability. Patterns can be a source of comfort when they create a feeling of order, influence, control, or mastery in an area of our lives. We feel more competent, confident, and safe when we focus on that which repeats and is repeatable. I think of a pattern as a blueprint or an outline, there are individual characteristics adding variety, but the same general pattern exists in the ways that living things are structured, the matter they are composed of, and how they function.
Patterns Create a Feeling of Safety Because They Provide PredictabilityWe make choices continuously about what to do or say in the interval between receiving a stimulus and providing a response. Behavior patterns develop initially through trial and error, as we learn that a particular response is successful in creating a desired outcome or avoiding an undesired outcome. A mostly successful response will be repeated and is easily chosen when seemingly similar situations arise. Some patterns can serve us well in circumstances requiring survival or quick reactive physical skills. However, there are many times when a particular response is no longer useful, appropriate, or even a good choice... yet we still tend to hang on to it.
Learned reactions can take on a rigidity after repetition that makes it more and more difficult to choose something different. These patterns then become our default mode or autopilot when we are overwhelmed or flooded with emotion. This is seen most often when the trigger for a particular stimulus is especially sensitive. Then we become stuck and enmeshed in our learned groove. We are especially prone to fall back on our learned patterns in times of crisis, when we are feeling unworthy or inadequate, or have deep uncertainty about our choices.
Eating - A Necessary Pattern for Survival
Eating is necessary for life and is a basic primal need. It is a deeply ingrained pattern. It starts in infancy when our need for sustenance is consistently met, inconsistently met, or usually not met. Nourishment develops as a both source of feeling comforted, safe and loved, and also as a battlefield where control and influence are exerted. Punishment and reward can be doled out in the form of food and food becomes a powerful weapon in control. Food is one of our first experiences of something “external” that we need in order to be okay, to feel better... to experience pleasure. We equate food with feelings of abundance and relaxation, or scarcity and anxiety.Our relationship with food is linked with feelings of safety, control, and mastery. In healthy and unhealthy ways, we use food to create feelings of fulfillment, abundance, and to avert our sense of scarcity. When we do not feel safe, when we are bombarded from without and within with messages of our inadequacy or unworthiness, we seek that which will help us feel better and be more in charge of our lives. We look to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of whatever appears to help us feel safe, influential, adequate and worthy.
Depression - A Pattern of Feeling Overwhelmed, Inadequate and Unworthy
Depression is characterized by an accumulation of feelings of scarcity, lack of meaning, and loss of control or influence. When we eat to relieve, cover, or gain a sense of control, we can see that we are seeking a way to treat our depression. This creates a call and response pattern that is especially hard to break because eating is not optional. However, how and what we eat is changeable, as is how and what we do to manage our symptoms of depression. We will explore the more promising and proactive options in the next posts.
NEXT POST – Breaking the Eating/Depression Pattern