Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

I often find myself “comfort-eating”, especially when I am feeling a bit stressed. What I want to know is why do I (and many others) get into this bad habit?

It seems to me that a common reason for developing this habit is because many of us have never learnt how to comfort ourselves, or self-soothe, using other, healthier, means when experiencing emotional or physical discomfort. In a perfect world, children would learn to self-soothe from the day they are born, mainly through the soothing interactions that they have with their primary caregivers, usually parents, when experiencing some distress.

Unfortunately, our caregivers/parents often did not have the knowledge or skills required to soothe us in healthy ways when we were experiencing some level of distress. They may have resorted to putting a bottle into our mouths or, as we grew older, giving us something sweet or tasty to suck or chew on. And, even if they didn’t resort to giving us food items, reaching for something that tastes good often seems to be the quickest way of comforting ourselves when we are experiencing some discomfort, especially difficult emotions, such as anxiety or sadness.

Although you haven’t requested advice with regard to comforting yourself during periods of stress, below are some options for self-soothing; techniques that can help you to cope better without resorting to comfort eating.

The first of these are very physical techniques that focus on nurturing one or more of the senses. What we hear, touch, see, smell, and taste can have a profound impact on our feelings and mood. Although it’s impossible to always be in control of what our senses are exposed to, we can make a conscious effort to supply them with things that calm and soothe us, and lift our spirits.

Consider starting this process by doing the following: Acknowledge how you’re feeling; Accept your feeling/s; and then Take some action to calm yourself…for example, listen to your favourite CD, or take your shoes off and feel the grass underfoot, or look through your favourite photos, or light a scented candle and/or enjoy the smell of fresh flowers, or enjoy a cup of your favourite tea and give attention to the taste of the brew.

The use of a breathing or relaxation technique (which you can easily find on the internet) is another useful self-soothing option.
Visualisation may also work for you. For many, this involves visualising a calm or safe space that you have had a positive experience with, for example a beach you visited as a young person.

Talking with someone you trust (e.g., close friends, family, mentors, therapists, or clergy) can be surprisingly comforting. This is partly because the experience of being listened to and understood helps people to feel less alone in their distress. In a similar way, Journaling provides a good outlet when you need to talk but don’t have someone to talk to.

All of the above methods take practice, and as you practice using some of them, you should see your relationship to stress and/or difficult emotions change.