Cabin Fever

This is the time of year when people start feeling like they just can’t take it any more.  The snow that was pretty in December now feels trapping.  The thought of yet another day marked by snow or a “wintery mix” feels like punishment.  The effort to find a parking space and trudge through the slush in the gym parking lot feels too overwhelming to even bother.  And the Wii Fit coach makes human sacrifice seem understandable.

It’s no wonder all the comfort foods on your “eat with moderation list” have woven themselves back into your main diet plan.   You might have even been able to rationalize their health benefits.  Chocolate for breakfast?  Why not!  It has all sorts of antioxidants and is a nice source of protein.  Mac & Cheese for dinner?  It does supply needed calcium.  And there’s probably an essential nutrient in the orange powder that you mix with the milk and butter that you can’t get anywhere else.  And the preservatives in those Twinkies you bought at the gas station on the way home will probably help you live forever.

If you’re good with this, no worries.  The human body is incredibly resilient.  Look at the diet of the average teenager.  If you find yourself feeling guilty, again no worries.  You might have slid back into patterns you don’t like, but you don’t have to stay here.  And you don’t even have to beat yourself up about it.  In fact it’s better if you don’t.

Eating all this comfort food is simply a strategy to take care of yourself.  So what if you were to dig deeper and sit with yourself to find out what you really need instead of just biting into that bar of Snickers?  If this question perplexes you, start with some basic questions.

Are you hungry?  If so, could you at least opt for one of those high protein, vitamin loaded “nutrition bars?”  And, in the future, might it be possible to do a little preventative planning — either packing healthy snacks or eating sooner before the monster within takes over and demands sugar, NOW!?

Are you angry (or sad, or scared)?  If so, what if you took half an hour to journal — to write out your feelings?  Sometimes just the simple act of acknowledging your feelings can shift your mood.  To actually admit that you’re really angry at your boss for not making time for you can be huge.  If your reaction is strong, you might find that after you write out your anger for awhile, perhaps by writing a letter to your boss that you will never send, you will be able to figure out what the incident reminds you of.  Maybe it reminds you of your father sitting in the Barcalounger, reading the Wall Street Journal and telling you he didn’t have time when you asked him for help.  Whatever the source of it is, if you can write out the feelings about the source, you might find that you no longer feel compelled to eat a bucket of the Colonel’s Fried Chicken.

Writing will also help with the sadness, so if you’re sad, let yourself write about the sadness.  And if you feel tears welling up, let yourself cry.

Fear is a little more tricky.  if you’re afraid, you might ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”  If the answer is, “I might die” let yourself dig deeper.  What’s leading you to think that you might die?  Is it true?  If you stand up in front of a group of people and can’t think of a thing to say, will you really die?  No, really…   Will you die?  Be objective.  If you are in serious physical risk, you probably aren’t contemplating an order of pancakes.  You should be getting away from the threat.  More likely, you are afraid of humiliation or of feeling your feelings.  Both are highly uncomfortable but neither will kill you.  And it probably reminds you of something that happened in the past.  You might remember the entire 3rd. grade class laughing at you when the teacher called on you and you gave a wrong answer.  Or maybe it’s not quite so simple.  People who were hurt as children, for example, often get scared when someone expresses anger around them, even if the anger isn’t directed towards them.  If you find yourself lost in fear a lot, it might be a good idea to find a counselor to work through these feelings with.

It takes a lot of time and energy to deny feelings or shove them down.  That quick run through the drive through for an emergency doughnut probably takes half an hour round trip.  The point isn’t to wallow in your feelings.  The point is to release them so that your emotions don’t control you.  The point is to release your clogged up emotions so that you can get your real needs met.

Another question you might ask is, “Am I tired?”  People often seek comfort in high carb, high fat foods and/or chocolate when they are tired.  Instead of taking a power nap or changing their schedule to get more sleep, they try better living through chemistry.  They use caffeine and carbs to keep them awake and drink alcohol to help them sleep.  And nothing seems to soothe irritability like a cheesecake, a tub of ice cream or a rack of ribs with a side of greasy onion rings.

Finally, ask yourself, “Am I lonely?”  If you’re lonely, what’s that about?  Some people feel lonely any time they are alone.  They fill their world with people and activities so that they don’t have to feel their feelings.  If this is the case, you really need to face your feelings.  If you can’t make yourself journal on your own, find a counselor who can help you feel the feelings you are running away from and stuffing down with food.  Other people feel an even deeper void because they are not connected to something greater than themselves.  Maybe this something is spiritual but it doesn’t have to be.  This sort of loneliness is an illusion.  As hard as it is, you will probably find it helpful to reach out.  Maybe this means searching your soul for it is that blocks you from connecting to God, your Higher Power, the Universe, or whatever it is that you call it.  Or maybe this means calling a friend or a relative on the phone to ask how they are doing.  Maybe this means going some place where someone is likely to smile at you and say, “Hi!”  (If you’re stumped for such a place, try going to Starbucks or your local gym and smiling at the people who check you in or take your order.)  And in the long run, maybe this means reaching out in a deeper way, volunteering your time to make a difference.

Once you have explored the roots of your “comfort eating,” see if you can devise new strategies to meet those underlying needs.  Try this for a week and see what happens.  And, be gentle with yourself in those moments when you fail.

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About reginasewell

I am a counselor, psychodramatist, writer, healing practitioner and college professor. I have a monthly column, "InsightOut" in Outlook (www.outlookcolumbus.com), an essay, "Sliding Away" in "Knowing Pains" and a book out "We're Here! We're Here! We're Queer! Get Used to Us!" My goal, through my writing, counseling and teaching is to help people heal from the emotional wounds and limiting beliefs that keep them from living engaging and meaningful lives.
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