I found a go-to fix for my anxiety before I even knew what anxiety was. Long before. I was only 8 years old, but I knew the sensation well. It felt like butterflies living in my belly and bees buzzing in my chest. It was hard to breathe or sit still or feel safe.
Then I found sugar. It wasn’t something readily available in my home growing up because my mother was a health nut. But there was plenty of it at my father’s restaurant. He had just opened a new cafe in town and I would go there after school most afternoons to help out. One of my jobs was filling the cream and sugar caddies on the tables from a supersize box of packets in the stockroom.
Hiding My Anxiety in the Restroom
Wow. I had never seen so much sugar in my life! That very first day, I filled my pockets with sugar packets and snuck off to the women’s restroom, locking the door behind me. I sat on the closed toilet and, one by one, tore the tops off the packets, poured the crystals in my mouth, and let them dissolve. Within minutes I felt more at ease. The butterflies in my stomach went away. All was calm, all was well. I was safe. I thought it was nothing short of a miracle, and found myself daydreaming during school hours about sugar packets in the stockroom. This was the beginning of a decades-long habit of turning to sugar to calm anxiety that eventually developed into yo-yo dieting and binge eating disorder.
Later in life, when I began to face my eating problems head-on, I learned what anxiety was and ways to manage it. As a doctor of behavioral health, I have studied the connection between food and the central nervous system. Did you know that just looking at food calms us down? Not only is it a symbol of safety and survival, when your brain sees food it starts preparing for digestion by automatically shifting your body to a state of rest. From there, the habit forms easily: Feel anxious – eat food – feel better – repeat. It becomes almost automatic. But there’s hope! Habits can be changed when we start to swap out “eat food” for other things that make us feel better.
For the most part, I do OK now; but sometimes I stop for a box of “pink and white anxiety pills,” otherwise known as Good and Plenty, at the convenience store when getting gas. When my husband finds an empty box in the console of my car, he smiles and says, what’s been bothering you lately? I can’t help but laugh—he knows me well. Those moments are a good reminder that it’s time for some reflection and self-care.
Do You Use Food to Manage Anxiety, Too?
If so, I invite you to join me for a very special weekend retreat at Green Mountain at Fox Run April 5-8 focusing on anxiety.
Created in partnership with the Anxiety Sisters, the program will offer support and tools for women who want to explore the connection between anxiety and food. I’ll be there to share more too, keeping it real, as always!