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By Dr. Alexa Altman
Every moment of the day our bodies responds to a plethora of stimuli. The stimuli can be in the external world (angry boss, grumpy spouse) or the internal world (distressing feelings or negative thoughts). Regardless of where the stimuli are coming from our body AUTOMATICALLY responds to meet daily challenges. This response is known as "fight or flight" and is always associated with a large burst of energy in the nervous system. This response is what protects us when we are in situations where we experience threat or danger. Our bodies have a certain threshold of energy that can be contained in the nervous system at one time. An analogy is that each of us has a different size container within us to hold this "survival energy". So you may be thinking, "What happens when our container is too full or the energy in the nervous system surpasses its capacity?" That is a great question and here is where food comes in.
"When the energy in our bodies surpasses the bodies energetic container, we start to experience symptoms such as, depression and anxiety." No one on earth wants to walk around with symptoms such as these, right? So, we develop ways to bring the energy back to a manageable level in the nervous system. You have probably already figured it out; food is one effective way of managing too much energy in the body. "Food can be an immediate solution to an internal experience that feels overwhelming" I want to use one more example to bring home this point. Most of us like the temperature in a room at 68 degrees. When a room gets too warm we adjust the thermostat and bring the temperature back down to a comfortable 68 degrees. Our bodies like to be in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. If we think of emotions as heat in the body, we need a thermostat to regulate the emotional heat inside. Food serves as the external thermostat that regulates internal heat. Furthermore, the habit of using food to regulate emotional heat has been rehearsed so many times that we often believe overeating is an inborn trait verses a learned course of action.
When food is not longer used to regulate emotional heat and other coping strategies are not well developed or utilized, there can be an increase in negative emotions, mainly depression and anxiety. Acknowledging and treating symptoms of depression and anxiety is one of the most significant factors for long-term weight loss success. In future articles, I will be discussing building resources and coping strategies for long-term success.
Experiment this week: I invite you to experiment with attending to your mood this week by journaling on the following observations: Notice how your mood shifts and changes throughout the day. Notice how you handle different mood states. Notice if you move through a bad mood or get stuck. Notice if food is the first thing you go to when the going gets tough. Notice how different people in your life affect your mood. There is no right or wrong way to do this experiment. The point is to become more aware of your emotional climate and begin to observe the role food plays in your life.
You can find more information about signs, symptoms and treatment for depression and anxiety at National Institute for Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov. Or you can see your medical provider.
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