Karen's Blogs

Blogs are brief, to-the-point, conversational, and packed with information, strategies, and tips to turn troubled eaters into “normal” eaters and to help you enjoy a happier, healthier life. Sign up by clicking "Subscribe" below and they’ll arrive in your inbox. 

[No unsolicited guest blogs accepted, thank you]

Perceptions of Stress

An article on emotional eating (What’s Your Relationship with Food? by Karen Collins, RD, American Institute for Cancer Research, at MSN.com/Health and Fitness) focuses on the possible causes of emotional eating. Collins describes one school of thought which maintains that it’s caused by dieting and deprivation, ie, the rebound effect. She also explains that people who head for the Häagen-Dazs when they’re upset may have faulty perceptions of stress, meaning they work themselves into a tizzy when they don’t really need to. While it’s old news to most of you that chronic dieting and food restriction lead to overfocusing on food and overeating, you may not have considered that how you perceive stress and your ability to cope with it is a major cause of emotional eating. As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I’ve known, written, and talked about this link for decades. Irrational thinking leads to irrational behavior; rational thinking leads to...
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Acknowledging Feelings

I try to avoid thumbing through women’s magazines, but sometimes when I don’t have a book handy, I succumb. Occasionally, I find an irresistible tidbit of information that makes slogging through the ads and beauty tips worthwhile. For example, in the February issue of Allure, there’s a brief column on emotions that reinforces what I’ve always known in my gut and through therapeutic experience. The column summarizes the findings of a study on emotions, concluding that “Not (ital mine) acknowledging a feeling stimulates emotional arousal in the brain.” In this experiment, two groups of people viewed images of faces along with two descriptive words below each picture. One word described the facial expression and the other word was neutral. Brain scans showed that when the volunteers paired the neutral word with an expressive face, the amygdala—the alarm center of the brain—showed increased activity. However, when they identified the feeling word associated...
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Clutter, Hoarding, and Overeating

We used to think of overeating as an isolated behavior divorced from the rest of personality—she can’t say no chocolate, he never met a burger he didn’t like—but science is connecting the dots between saying “no” to food and other self-regulatory malfunctions. Consider hoarding, an inability to deny yourself new items and let go of old ones, which is a disorder of sufficiency, a glitch in the felt sense of enough. It’s obvious what this condition has in common with overeating. When we cannot turn from or throw away food when we’re stuffed, we are making choices from faulty wiring in our brain. Our mouths water in anticipation whether we are hungry or not; we are so attached that we cannot stop eating although another mouthful is clearly not in our best interest. Why is that? Are we merely weak-minded and a little crazy? Studies on hoarding tell a different story:...
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Failing Forward

An artist friend of mine used the term failing forward while talking about a student of hers who was making mistakes learning how to paint but was nevertheless progressing. I immediately fell in love with the term. It captured everything I believe about this thing we call failure. Working in the field of drug addiction for years, I avoided using the term relapse, with its connotation of back sliding. Clients were terrified of relapsing, as if it were a bad thing, but I never saw it that way. In my mind, relapse (see archived blogs on the subject) is a learning opportunity, a chance to stop and examine what is unknown and needs to be known in order to achieve recovery. The term failing forward captures the way I view returning to old behavior—be it starving, stuffing or picking up the crack pipe again. It’s an occasion to look at what...
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Dwelling on Emotion

Many of my clients and students grumble about “dwelling” on painful feelings or traumatic memories, asking, “What’s the point?” Perhaps you’ve said or thought this yourself. Well, here’s the answer. According to the dictionary, to dwell means “to fix attention on” and “think about for a long time.” When you fear dwelling on things, my guess is that you’re not thinking of the first definition but of the words “for a long time” in the second one. You’re afraid that touching on or stirring up painful emotions will suck you down into them and that you’ll get stuck and won’t be able to climb out. However, your fear (due to experience or false anticipation) must be overcome to grow emotionally and overcome disordered eating. There are two ways to dwell on pain, one healthy and one unhealthy. The goals of healthy dwelling are understanding and releasing of emotion; unhealthy dwelling has...
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Giving Thanks

Okay, now, it’s done, over, finito. You got through Thanksgiving—through all the delicious foods, your anxieties about eating too much or too little, your fears about what people might say about your weight, and the dread of being with relatives that make you want to divorce your family. If you weren’t Ms. or Mr. Perfect on Thanksgiving, you may be in a remorseful, beat-yourself-up state of mind today, so here’s a chance to leap frog back over to mental health where you belong. Rather than focus on what you did wrong, stick with the Thanksgiving theme of gratefulness. What do you have to be thankful for regarding food? If you can’t think of anything, here are some general thoughts. Be thankful that food is abundant because you are not poor, that you live in a country that is not torn by war so that you can eat in peace, that you...
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The Big Ds

Talking with a client recently, I realized that there are a trio of emotions (that all happen to start with D) which may be felt about an eating problem that can get in the way of recovery: disgust, denial, and despair. Understanding how they inhibit progress can go a long way toward helping you reach your eating and weight goals. When you feel disgust at your body or your eating, you are turning against yourself—thinking less of yourself because you are sick of how you look or how you act. You may believe that if you’re disgusted enough (or disgusting enough), you’ll change. Well, if that transformation strategy was going to work, wouldn’t it have happened already? Instead, being disgusted causes you to feel worse about yourself (and may drive you to abuse food more). The opposite of disgust is compassion which is a loving emotion that says I don’t necessarily...
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Balancing Praise and Criticism

Ideally all of us would be able to take in compliments and criticism in a balanced way. When someone remarks that we did an outstanding job on a project or looked smashing, we’d feel proud and glow inside. When someone expresses disappointment that we hurt their feelings or left chores undone, we’d feel badly that we let them down or failed to live up to reasonable standards. We wouldn’t expect to never make mistakes, nor assume we’re always in the wrong and can’t do anything right. In my work, I use an analogy which seems to help people envision what I’m talking about. I imagine that emotionally balanced people have two equal strips of Velcro inside them: one each for positive and negative comments they receive. Whichever comes their way, praise or criticism, it sticks to the appropriate Velcro strip. In this way, we’d get to learn about ourselves and how...
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Greener Grass

One of the ways we become dissatisfied with ourselves is by believing that the grass is greener in other pastures. We imagine how happy others must be, observe couples and assume they have fairy tale relationships, envision the lives of certain—rich, thin, wealthy, famous—folks as flowing from one flawless moment to the next. And, sadly, we view bodies the same way: this one looks just perfect, that one’s the American ideal. We see a person with a “perfect” body and assume she achieved it effortlessly, naturally, whereas she may suffer from anorexia or bulimia, have had plastic surgery, may spend hours at the gym body sculpting, or may put excessive amounts of time and money into getting clothes to look just right. Just as we aren’t privy to all the snags in relationships—the fights and nights couples go to bed angry, their disappointments and regrets—and can’t know about the enormous job...
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What’s So Scary About Emotions?

Members of the Food and Feelings message board are doing some amazing work on emotions by reading my Food and Feelings Workbook and discussing it online. Reading their posts, I’ve been thinking about what frightens them so about emotions. The main fears people have are of burdening others, getting stuck in their upset, “losing it” and being unable to function, and falling into a deep (or deeper) depression. These fears contain some truth, but are overblown. In my 30 years doing therapy, there have been clients who have endured exceptional trauma who needed to be hospitalized, but were discharged better off than they were before they went in. There have been clients who took a painful, long time to work through old wounds, who felt stuck but were actually doing great work getting unstuck. I have seen clients who needed to focus on themselves for brief periods when they were in...
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Food and Self-violence

Occasionally I hear a description of eating, especially bingeing, that seems to my ears to be tinged with violence. This may sound like a harsh word to apply to eating, but it is appropriate. Sometimes a person actually uses the term “violence” to describe her binges; other times I can hear the self-hate and self-destructiveness in her tone. Stop and think if you are someone who would use violence to describe the tone of your eating. This kind of behavior is never, ever about food, but indicates your mood and feelings about yourself or others. There is cruelty behind it and masochism, perhaps even the desire not only to obliterate your feelings, but yourself. Because of the aggression of your eating, food might as well be a loaded gun: you want to hurt someone and hurt them bad. Unfortunately, that someone may be you or someone close to you.Violent eating may...
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Authenticity

Being authentic may be a foreign concept to many dysregulated eaters. You may not understand exactly what the term means, not know how to be genuine, or find it difficult to connect to your deepest emotions. (A great read on the subject is The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, a psychology classic.) You may wonder if you have to be authentic all the time and if the word applies to actions as well as emotions. A person is authentic when they are in touch with their true feelings. Being authentic means connecting to your feelings on a deep level, acknowledging what is up for you in the moment, and not chasing that feeling away. Examples of being inauthentic include denying feeling hurt to yourself or others, doing something you adamantly don’t want to do or that isn’t in your best interest only to please others, convincing yourself to...
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Eating from Boredom

Recently a question came up on the message boards I advise on (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/dietsurvivors and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/foodandfeelings) about eating from boredom. Boredom is an interesting emotion because it can stand alone but also may mask other uncomfortable feelings such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety and depression. There are two types of boredom: acute and chronic. You may feel acute boredom when your friend cancels plans for Saturday night at the last minute and leaves you with nothing to do or when you accompany a partner to a lecture that doesn’t interest you all that much. Chronic boredom is a regular occurrence—you frequently feel you have nothing to do or are unengaged emotionally, you lack energy to get up and go yet are antsy, you feel stuck in old routines, in your same old skin. Some boredom is inevitable. We can’t be in the thick of things 24/7. We need time to relax, reflect, and...
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Self-denial

Self-denial is a learned facility and has its positive and negative sides. In order to function well in society both personally and professionally, we naturally need to say no to ourselves. For example, it’s not okay to break into a jewelry store and grab a Rolex watch even though you may want one more than anything else in the world. It’s also not cool to steal your best friend’s boyfriend or acceptable to believe that you must have every little thing your heart desires. Denying pleasure or gratification in service of a different or higher goal is a valuable skill that is learned through the maturation process. However, being unable to say yes to your desires in balance with saying no is self-denial run amuck. As with anything else, withholding from self can become a bad habit, a rigid, one-note approach, a practice that feeds on itself and generates a life...
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Self-soothing

A question came up on the message board for my Food and Feelings Workbook (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/foodandfeelings) about self-soothing techniques. There are a variety that, if not learned adequately in childhood, need to be acquired later on for healthy emotional regulation. As with other skills, the more you practice, the better you get and the more natural the behaviors feel. Here are 4 that should help—body relaxation, positive self-talk, mantras, and physical self-comfort. The basic relaxation technique works best in a quiet environment. Sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe deeply, inhaling warm, soothing air and exhaling body tension for about 5 minutes. Next, tense each part of your body for 5 seconds then relax it for 15 seconds, starting with your feet and ending with your head (to include legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, neck, shoulders, and arms). Go slowly. Visualize inhalation bringing relaxing air to the specific body part and...
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The Upside of Perfectionism

Often mental health clinicians point out how being a perfectionist can prevent someone from leading a fulfilling, happy life. We warn against pushing too hard, having personal standards that are impossibly high, and trying to live up to expectations that are so unrealistic that they can’t help but lead to feeling inadequate. All true enough, but did you know that perfectionism also has an upside? When I work with people who refuse to make themselves uncomfortable in order to change or who want to give up when they realize how arduous the recovery process is, I wish they had a healthy dose of perfectionism. Some people fail to recover precisely because they’re not willing to put in the effort, are ambivalent about recovery, don’t follow suggestions or advice, and view themselves as powerless victims. They don’t know how to set goals, maintain motivation, push themselves over hurdles, and therefore throw in...
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Eating Disorders and Shame

In my Food and Feelings Workbook I describe the purpose of shame as helping you to recognize that you’ve done something wrong or are not living up to your personal behavioral standards. Shame is such a powerful motivator that it often prods you to do things you would rather not do—eat though you fear gaining weight, stop yourself in the middle of a binge, refuse to purge in spite of feeling full. Without shame working as it should, none of us would recover from eating disorders! However, shame also has a dark side—you live in its shadow when you feel ashamed of your eating behavior and do nothing to correct it. Or, more accurately, when by not acknowledging your shame, you live in disappointment about yourself for not measuring up to the standards you know are healthy for you. To work effectively, shame must wash over you, give you a thorough...
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Strong Is Not the Way

I often hear people say that they have to be strong without understanding the havoc that trying to be that way all the time wreaks on life. First off, it’s impossible. We are not meant to be men and women of steel. Leave that job to superhuman comic book characters, please. We are meant, rather, to live in emotional balance—sometimes we need to be strong and sometimes we need to be (gulp!) weak. Unfortunately, our media images shine with folks who seem to have iron wills, never give in, do it all themselves, and are never overcome by emotion. Growing up with these images, we may believe that we should always have our lives under control as if we, and we alone, governed the universe. More likely, our parents encouraged us to be “big” boys and girls, by either word or example. Perhaps they provided rigid role models for toughing it...
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Riding the Brakes

I assume that all of you who drive know what it means to ride the brakes: your foot rests lightly on or hovers above the brake pedal so that you can stomp down on it in a flash or keep going so slowly that you never really pick up speed. This kind of driving hyper-vigilance comes from a fear of moving too fast and/or of not being able to brake quickly enough. The same kind of hyper-vigilance can be used to describe the behavior of the rigidly restrictive undereater who is constantly riding the brake of appetite. If you’re one of these people, perhaps you grew up believing that if you didn’t sit on your appetite, you’d never be able to reign it in. Maybe your parents or relatives were overweight or overeaters and you were ashamed of them, leading you to decide early on never to give in to excess...
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Learning to Let Loose

One pattern I’ve noticed over the decades is how many overeating problems there are among very successful women. You might even be one of them, an amazing, overachieving, talented female who holds a high-powered job, has an exciting, satisfying career, and/or is a leader in your field. You can’t help but impress people with how much you’ve achieved in your lifetime and what you get done in a day. Well respected and admired, you nevertheless frequently feel you’re not doing enough and have difficulty taking care of yourself as well as you take care of others. When I delve into the histories of women like you, I find first borns, only children, or sole females among brothers. Maybe you spent too much of your childhood taking care of parents who were physically or mentally ill or addicted, or being similarly responsible for siblings. The concept of putting your needs aside to...
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