Our agony aunt tackles your issues
I am intelligent, capable and attractive. But I am also unable to stop eating too much chocolate and other sugary stuff. I have been doing this since I can remember. I know I am basically eating my feelings because I have noticed I eat more when I’m stressed, although I overeat when I’m not, too.
I eat in secret, mainly packs of chocolate bars, big packets of sweets and biscuits, then I hide the wrappers. I have put on three stone in three years. I think I would certainly fall into the ‘obese’ category from the medical point of view, now. Twice I have lost a stone, but it has always gone back on, plus more, afterwards.
As a child I was very keen on sweets and cakes, and resentful when my mum used to limit them. Although people see me as very cheerful, I find it hard to talk about my feelings. I don’t have an unhappy family life – I have a kind husband and two lovely children. Friends tell me it’s not too much of a problem because ‘it’s only chocolate’, but I’m desperate for help. I would be so grateful for any advice. Name and address withheld
First, I am going to play with your language a bit. You are saying that you are “unable to stop”. I want you to change this to, “I am choosing not to stop.” It may not feel as if you are making a choice when you choose to give in to your cravings, but you are.
Some people just can’t seem to eat sugar in moderation and it can be easier to give it up entirely. For some of us, sugar is addictive.
Going cold turkey may seem impossible, but I promise you, it’s not. You may find it easier to give up chocolate and sugary foods if you also give up all sugar and caffeine, too. But it will be an unpleasant process. As well as cravings you will probably also get a withdrawal headache. Then, after a week, you will find it so much easier to stay off chocolate and sugar because you will crave it so much less. When I did this, I also had to give up sugar substitutes like those in diet drinks because I found they made my cravings come back.
You can keep yourself busy by watching your cravings instead of being your cravings. Start a cravings chart; when you feel you’re in the grip of one, give it a number, one for the weakest and 10 if it’s very strong. An hour later, check in and rate the craving again. Soon, you will be able to see from your chart that your cravings subside, crucially without you giving into them.
It’s great you know why you eat sugar. But even if you do stop soothing yourself with it, you may well find a substitute soother. For example, you don’t want to switch to drinking a bottle of wine every night. To prevent this, you need to really talk about your feelings rather than being scared of them and pushing them down with chocolate or wine or whatever. The root of addiction is often in childhood, from not having your feelings validated and not having how you experience yourself mirrored back to you adequately. That can leave you feeling empty inside.
You could go to a therapist who, hopefully, will attune to you, mirror your experience to you and validate how you feel. Joining a group of people who want to talk honestly and be listened to can give a similar experience. For example, you could join or even start a group like those at Mentalhealthmates.co.uk. Once you’ve had some practice of sharing your story and your feelings, you’ll get better at talking about all your feelings, not just those you were trained by your childhood to think of as okay. Because all of your feelings are okay and the only way you can find that out is having them accepted and validated by other people. Be patient, it may take practice.
And back to language again, all of the above will work if, rather than try to do it, you decide to do it.