So many of us equate rest and relaxation with food.
And this may be for good reason. Holidays, weddings, celebrations and get-togethers all tend to surround the act of eating. So you’ve had a stressful day. First your high paying customer’s unrealistic expectations left you with the blame. Then, your eighth grader emphatically screamed that you were ruining his life. Now you’re in a fight with your spouse about that bill you knew nothing about. So needless to say, you’re stressed. And in an attempt to rest, and take care of yourself, you just really want to do the one activity you normally equate with rest, relaxation and comfort. You want to eat.
So many cultures have the tradition of preparing food as an attempt to show friendship and love. A new neighbor moves in down the street, and you bring them over a cake to welcome them to the neighborhood. The daughter returns from college and you greet her with her favorite home-cooked meal. When someone dies, you bring over a casserole as a small gesture of support. Food is love, so it makes sense that we use it to soothe ourselves when the self-love well has dried up a bit.
Before we go any further, time for a quick science interlude.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is released when you chow down on your favorite foods. One of dopamine’s main jobs is to send happy signals to your brain and lift your mood. When all is balanced in your body, dopamine will be shut-off once you’ve eaten an adequate amount. So food is rewarding, but only up to a point. But when the body is imbalanced, as in times of stress, the signal to turn-off dopamine can be a no-show. The signal gets thrown off course by stress hormones. This can result in an increase in the reward value of food or more specifically, you downing 2 pints of ice cream.
So, then it makes sense that we eat comfort foods when we’re stressed. We are biologically attracted to the dopamine high we get when we eat. Additionally, most of us associate eating with love, rest and celebration. And how can we blame ourselves for wanting to nurture and love ourselves?
But the question arises, are their other habits we can create that we associate with self-care that will also elicit a dopamine release in the brain? Think of taking care of a small child. We don’t just stop at feeding a baby. We hold her, soothe her when she is crying, play with her, sing to her, change her diaper and make sure she is safe. Can we take care of ourselves in this same, multifaceted way?
Here is a list of activities that can create a dopamine release in the brain:
- Spend 45 minutes jogging, swimming or on the treadmill.
- Learn a new skill. Start that hobby you’ve always dreamt about. Achieving a goal can increase dopamine.
- Use lavender oil or burn lavender scented candles. There is some research to support lavender’s ability to boost dopamine.
- Get together with friends or watch a funny movie. Laughter elicits the release of dopamine.
- Play video games for a dopamine rush. But limit this to an occasional activity as video game playing can be addictive and problematic in its own way.
- Eat protein. Protein helps with the production of dopamine.
Here is a sample of activities that can become self-care rituals:
- Read a good book in a bubble bath.
- Write in a journal.
- Take a walk through nature (weather permitting).
- Go to a movie.
- Get a massage, facial, manicure or pedicure.
- Light candles or burn essential oils.
- Spend time with the family pet or volunteer at an animal shelter.
Take time to create new rituals and rewards that are soothing and celebratory to you. For most of us, food has been used as a reward and an expression of love for most of our lives. Yet, we don’t have to stay stuck in that way of living. Changing any habit takes time. And given that stress eating can have deep emotional roots, additional assistance for a qualified therapist may be necessary.
The point is, it is important to recognize the role food plays in our celebrations and reward system.
That way, we can consciously build a new reward structure into our lives. With time, the hope is to find new ways to boost mood with dopamine as well as self-nurture. The day will eventually occur again when stress is elevated. So think about it now. What other activities besides stress eating would you find rewarding and how can you better nurture yourself in your own time of need?