There are physiologic underpinnings to the ways our bodies feel hunger and fullness. Digestion can be explained in precise detail- the pathways and steps, hormones released, the general response sensations produced in bodies (these responses vary). There is some comfort in that- knowing how things work. Having a certain predictability about things. Though I don’t remember it all well enough to type it out here as I’ve just sat down to write this, and I don’t speak of it often enough to have it handy in my memory.
What gets talked about in my office?
The responses that humans have to their lived experiences (things that happen to them in their lives). Google dictionary describes feelings as an emotional state or reaction (and as a belief, especially a vague or irrational one. Hmmmmm…….). I also searched “emotion”: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. And also: instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.
Seems, from these definitions, we are confused about feelings. And, emotions are instinctual, or natural responses.
So- we have emotional responses that are just as normal as ghrelin, a hormone that is released from the stomach to tell us that we are hungry (among other things). Since the emotional responses come first, as reactions to our circumstances, mood, or relationships with others, and these have impact on the way our bodies tell us that we are hungry or full and on digestion as a whole, that’s usually where things start in my office. There is complexity to both parts (the things that happen on the inside of our bodies that impact feeding, and the things that happen on the outside).
And it turns out people have a lot to say- because they are feeling a lot of things, having a lot of emotions (a natural and instinctive state of mind deriving from circumstances). And, there aren’t a whole lot (if any) people in their lives that can hold space for feelings or emotions.
This is a consistent theme in my own life, the lives of people around me, and for the people I serve. This is the reality that we are living in.
I suppose, in a broad effort to remedy this, we could start by not thinking about a feeling as a “a belief, especially a vague or irrational one”. We could start to normalize automatic emotional responses to things like Donald Trump being the President of the United States.
And we could each learn a little bit about holding each other’s pain.
But back to digestion, people get upset in my office, because food and eating is complicated. They’ve internalized that something is wrong with them, that somehow their bodies are broken because they can’t crack the case about how to feed themselves. Hunger signals are complicated by stress or meds or restriction and appetite is hard to access for similar reasons and we are all swimming in a culture full of (contradicting) rules about food and condemning messages about pleasure. So it makes sense that accessing hunger and appetite is challenging for people. Our socialization into diet culture, the dominant paradigm dictating people’s feeding relationships (66 billion dollar industry), tells us that we need rules and experts and programs and to eat these foods and not those. It’s tempting to think it’s that simple. That money (the 66 billion dollars) continues to sell the message that most people can do all of the “right” things with food and movement in order to reach fulfillment with love, happiness, and worthiness.
Eating is an instinctual phenomenon that is taken from us, usually at an early age, by diet culture; insisting that we should regulate what and when and why things go into our bodies to fuel our cells. Disconnecting us from our bodies and our internal instinct on feeding them.
Other things that happen, sometimes at a young age or from the day a person is born into the world?
Trauma. Or pain, that wasn’t held and loved. Complex trauma that becomes a diagnosis that becomes a stigma. A broken heart. Oppression. Daily oppression. Being born in the wrong body in a transphobic world. The death of a loved one. Having to break a heart. Disease. Disability. The climate crisis. Children in cages. Poverty. And. And. And. And. And.
We react, instinctively, with emotions to the things happening to us and around us. And when there isn’t space for these emotions, they go somewhere, stored in our bodies until they feel safe to come out. Sometimes food is the only comfort. Sometimes food feels impossible.
We relate to food and our bodies in consistently shifting ways as we navigate our humanity. It shifts and changes and gets easier and gets more complicated as we move along. There is sometimes immense complexity in how we relate to food and our bodies. The answers are not always clear. And sometimes, there is no answer.
Which is hard.
Digging your way back to being an eater that feels at peace more of the time than not while eating is complicated. Digging your way back to a sense of feeling at home in your body is complicated. There is an unknown on the other end. It’s a process, and complexity and nuance (and grief) are along for the ride.
And none of this is your fault.
I offer to you, to couple with this journey to a place where nourishing your body feels different in a gentler way:
2. trust in your ability to heal the part of you that is calling your attention
What is the part of you that longs for more ease?
If that feels possible, start there.
Very little of this article came from my formal education, other than the financial stability I was provided in order to write it, and that has deeper roots in my many unearned privileges. There are many things that disrupt a person’s access and relationship with food, and that shifts drastically with the amount of privileged and marginalized identities a person holds. A one size fits all approach never has, and never will, "work". Food and bodies in this culture are complicated. Let’s get comfortable with that, start to heal, and get to work on treating ourselves, and others, better.