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Jane engaged in emotional eating for years, until she got to the bottom of why

Going through such trauma may have “primed” Jane to avoid facing her feelings. Her complicated relationship with her mother may then have added further fuel to the fire. “What I learnt was that I was essentially using food like a drug,” Jane says.

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Instead of experiencing her feelings, she sought a quick fix through binge-eating. Once Jane understood the emotional cause of her disordered relationship with food, she was able to work towards breaking this behaviour. That involved unpacking the traumas she’d experienced in her life while also learning how to sit with unpleasant feelings, without seeking instant relief.

Jane’s story is familiar to Sarah McMahon, psychologist and director of BodyMatters Australasia, who says it’s very common for people to use the act of eating as a way of bypassing feelings. “We find that, symbolically, people push down feelings through the act of pushing down food.”

Eating is a common coping mechanism, McMahon says, as it creates “a whole cocktail” of chemical responses which result in a pleasurable experience. “So it’s a very easy way of anaesthetising feelings.”

Body shame often goes hand in hand with such behaviours. It’s easy to then think the solution to weight loss is dieting, but McMahon says that only makes matters worse. When people go on a diet, she says, they often then think of certain foods as forbidden. “Somehow, that makes them more desirable.”

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Therapy involves moving away from focusing on weight loss and shifting one’s thinking towards rebuilding a healthy relationship with food.

Rather than labelling foods as either good or bad, McMahon encourages patients to throw such ideas out the window and simply consider whether that food should be eaten every day, sometimes, or only occasionally.

McMahon then encourages people to eat what their body is asking for, rather than what they tell themselves they “should” eat. “By recalibrating that, and working towards developing a relationship with food that’s far more intuitive, we’re much more able to give our body what it needs,” she says.

You might not lose weight, adds McMahon, but the benefits people gain from healing their relationship with food are “so significant” to their quality of life. “It’s much more holistic than the number on the scales.”

Jane couldn’t agree more. While she’s at a “comfortable” weight now, she says the biggest boost therapy has given her health has been by creating a positive relationship with food, one in which she no longer turns to it as a coping mechanism. “I wouldn’t dream of using food to numb myself now,” Jane says. “It just doesn’t mean the same thing any more.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 334 673. For 24/7 crisis support, please call 13 11 14.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 2.

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