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The Truth About Lack of Connection and Emotional Eating

I recently read something that struck a chord in my heart:

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction 

Emotional eating is an addiction. Since food is a powerful drug (a drug is “a substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body”)—the question is, do emotional eaters become addicted to food because of “addictive” foods like sugar, or do they become addicted to food because they lack a connection to something else? According to Dr. Maté, yes. They lack connection. And he’s not the only one who believes this.

Dr. Bruce Alexander, former Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, examined some old research on addiction where rats could choose between plain water and water that contained either heroin or cocaine. The rats almost always chose the drugged water, and many ended up killing themselves.

But then Dr. Alexander had an epiphany. Those rats were kept in solitary cages, and had nothing else to do but get high. So he conducted his own study. He built a “Rat Park” that gave rats free access to food, stimulation, contact with other rats, and the choice of plain or drugged water. The Rat Park rats almost never chose the drugged water… none chose it compulsively… and none overdosed.

Humans have the same response.

In the absence of connection, we self-soothe by bonding with something else. And yet, because we are hardwired to avoid loss and experience connection, we stay in unhappy relationships because we fear losing the connection.

Either way, we’re miserable.

Frankly, it can be easier not to connect to avoid the pain of loss. A faux-happy social media life is easier than feeling rejection when a friend says, “I can’t, I’m busy.” Binge-watching Netflix and eating chips is easier than hosting a party and risking having one person show up. Avoiding that hottie is easier than risking being shot down. But in the process of avoiding loss, we miss out on connection.

As “Internet-connected” as we are, we’re actually terribly alone. In a recent poll, people reported having just one close friend; and over 70% of people feel lonely, at least sometimes. Virtual connections are poor substitutes. Facebook friends aren’t likely to be there when you need them. Unfortunately, a shift away from front-porch communities makes us more like isolated lab rats than the happy rats in Dr. Alexander’s “Rat Park.”


How To Connect, When You Don’t Know How Or Are Afraid To

A big part of healing emotional eating, then, is to increase connection. Researchers agree that people with happy human connections are significantly less likely to partake in harmful behaviors/substances, or to try to fill the emptiness with things.

It has been suggested that “addiction” should be rephrased as “bonding.” Humans have an innate need to bond with something, preferably other people. Lacking satisfying human connections, we desperately bond with something—anything—that offers some relief: food, booze, drugs, shopping, gambling… whatever helps. Anecdotal evidence suggests that hospital patients on “addictive” painkillers like morphine, won’t develop an addiction—IF they have a strong social network.

“Not so easy,” you might reply. “I’m an introvert. I’m shy. I’ve been rejected. I don’t want to be hurt again. I don’t know where to meet people.”  All emotional eaters feel this way.  But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can make great connections, it just takes a little bit of conscious effort.

Here’s how to make great connections, even if you’re shy or introverted:

Before you go somewhere:

  1. Prime yourself for a great experience. Visualize a situation and mentally rehearse what you’ll say and do, to feel more comfortable when you arrive. Just don’t get stuck in expectations.
  2. Pump yourself up. Avoid negative reinforcement like, “I’m shy, I’m no good at meeting new people, etc…” Challenge these thoughts mercilessly. Practice a positive mantra instead: “Smile, and be interested in people!”
  3. Who cares what people think? Worrying about what people ‘might’ think leads to social anxiety. People judge each other, but most just want connection and are willing to make the effort.
  4. Practice being approachable. Downcast eyes/hunched posture/crossed arms say, “I’m shy, go away.” Invite interaction by practicing a smile, eye contact, and body language that says, “I’m interested in you.”


Getting out with confidence

Face your fears and put yourself out there… with baby steps that build confidence. Practice makes it easier!

  1. Be seen, but not as the center of attention. Put yourself in casual situations where it’s easy to meet people. Take a yoga class or a woodworking course. Learn how to brew beer. Join a Meetup group.
  2. Be in service in your community. Volunteer at your local animal shelter, church, or community center (opportunities abound). Being in service is an easy way to make friends.
  3. Be approachable. SMILE. You may not feel like smiling if you’re nervous but I assure you, your smile will light up a room and attract people to you. A genuine smile is your most attractive feature! How can you smile when inwardly you’re freaking out? Silently say, “I really like you” to the person you’re looking at. It works!
  4.  Practice a few good stories. Come prepared with a few stories and topics of conversation to keep conversations going. Stories encourage sharing! Voilà—instant connection!
  5. Be genuinely interested in people. People love to talk about themselves! Make people feel good by asking questions, listening deeply, and offering your undivided attention. Show that you care, and you’ll forget your own insecurity while making someone feel valued! Authentic listening is simple: Imagine you’re talking to the most interesting person alive—the deeper you dig, the more interesting people become! Everybody has fascinating stories. Encourage them to talk, and listen with empathy.


The Healing Power of Connection

Connection powerfully supports your overall wellbeing. If you make the effort, people will respond. One great place to start connecting is by joining the Secret Sauce to End Emotional Eating!  It’s a safe, online place where emotional eaters come to talk to each other, show support, and become friends.