Breaking Unhelpful Habits

Question -

I was in a relationship when I was younger where the guy abused me mentally and physically. I turned to food for comfort. Over the years since we broke up, which is about 28 years ago, I have put a lot of weight on, have struggled with anxiety for years. How can I get out of the habit of comfort eating? As I am very unhappy and conscious of my size.
Thanks x

Answer -

Thank you for sharing your story. We are so sorry to hear about what you went through with your past relationship and how it has impacted on you today. It is really normal (and in fact a survival strategy) for all of us to turn to comfort when we're going through a distressing time, and comfort can come in many forms, some that later become habits we want to change.

Our habits or certain patterns of behaviour develop firstly when we experience discomfort, un-safety or anxiety in our lives. Our bodies/brains are wired to seek a way to survive by avoiding the discomfort by running away/distracting ourselves from it, or seeking pleasure. Once we eat for comfort and successfully avoid the pain/discomfort, we release dopamine into our system. Dopamine is a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter which motivates us to continue with what we are doing. So in a way, we reinforce our unhelpful habits each time we comfort eat, or give in to our habits, making the patterns stronger and difficult to break away from over time.

It is however possible to break out of unhelpful habits, by developing newer and helpful patterns of behaviour. This process takes time and conscious commitment. It's like when you're driving a 4 wheel drive over a track in the sand. The more you drive over the track, the easier it is to keep going down that same track. When you try a new track on fresh sand, it feels wobbly and tricky, but the more you do it, the easier it gets over time - and the old one isn't used as much anymore. These 'tracks' are the neural pathways in our brains. The more we repeat and practice a new behaviour, even when it's uncomfortable or challenging, the more 'hard wired it becomes. Managing unwanted habits is in essence, anxiety and stress management. We've written a blog about changing unhelpful habits which you can read here:

Through accessing therapy support, below are some helpful steps in breaking out of an unwanted habit:

1. Connecting with your anxiety and understanding how your body/brain holds anxiety.

2. Understanding your default patterns when you perceive danger.

3. Tuning into yourself and the messages your body gives you when you feel stressed, and also knowing what helps to calm you.

4. Soothing your nervous system.

5. Practicing more helpful behaviours which replace the unhelpful behaviours, in other words encouraging dopamine to reinforce more helpful behaviours.

6. Understanding that ‘repetition’ is key. The more you practice helpful patterns of behaviour when meeting stress/anxiety, the more it becomes your default - and the unhelpful habits weaken.

7. Learning that this process is not linear and ongoing support and guidance will provide you with the best possible steps moving forward.

8. Being compassionate with yourself when you notice yourself feeling conscious and uncomfortable about your weight. As one of our psychologists Kate so beautifully put: When we are suffering and experiencing emotional pain, when life feels unsettled and without direction, when we make mistakes or behave in ways that don’t align with who we are, or who we want to be, we often treat ourselves with harshness, criticism and judgment. At these times our internal chatter tends to be insulting, damaging and unkind, often leading to feelings of shame and unworthiness. Cultivating a practice of self-compassion allows us to develop a healthier way of relating to ourselves. It encourages us to be gentle, calm and caring towards ourselves. Self-compassion helps us to keep going, no matter how difficult things get, and to try again when we make inevitable mistakes. Self-compassion helps us to get in touch with our suffering, rather than turning away from it.

Wishing you all the best,

~Thania and Christina ~

Kristine Ross