Stress Eating, Being overweight and Depression

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Stress eating, depression and being overweight results in hopelessness, helplessness, and hiatus.

Stress eating,  being overweight and depression  begin in childhood, alters your hormonal balance including insulin,   propelling you into a trifecta of depression, dis-empowerment and despair.

Stress eating, being overweight and depression starts in childhood and continues into adulthood.

Mimi a 32-year-old office manager for a busy doctor’s practice had a stressful job, involving long hours – trying to attend to patient care while also ensuring the thorough record keeping for several partners. She was the conduit between the patients, their insurance carriers, drug representatives and other professionals that her employers worked with. Pressure to make things run smoothly was enormous. Mimi often coped with the ongoing chronic stress by’ comfort eating’, followed by coming down on herself, feeling ugly and unlovable. She saw the world as judging her negatively and began to withdraw, beginning a cycle of depression that made her eat more to deal with the feelings of rejection and hopelessness.

As a young girl she struggled to exist in an unstable emotional atmosphere where her father sometimes appeared to seek her out and play with her, and at other times excoriate her as a naughty child who didn’t deserve his attention. Mimi’s mother used her daughter as a source of constant validation and acceptance, leaving the girl empty and scared, unable to control her own emotions – vulnerable to repeated loops of chronic stress. Stress eating as a pre-teen became a tool to soothe her fear of being unmoored in a family where she only ‘existed’ on a part time basis according to the mood of her parents.

Mimi felt heavy as she put on pounds. In the peak of her adolescent years and early adulthood she turned in against herself and hated the weight for making her fat and ugly (unaware that it was padding -protecting her from rejection and hurt). Desperate for some control over her body she started to diet – counting calories; limiting herself to certain foods and attempting a ‘pure’ foods eating regimen in the hope that she would clean herself of all the fat that made her feel so awful. She became obsessive about her eating habits – making it less likely that she could socialize with her peer group.

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 Stress eating, depression and being overweight put Mimi at high risk for Orthorexia Nervosa

The journal Appetite, 2019 described a study that showed those who have a history of obsessive-compulsive traits, dieting, poor body image, and a drive for thinness are more likely to develop a pathological obsession with healthy eating or consuming only healthy food, known as Orthorexia Nervosa.

Mimi’s stress eating developed into a type of eating disorder (Orthorexia Nervosa) that goes hand in hand with depression. Although Mimi had experienced low grade depression throughout her childhood due to chronic emotional stress; later in life the depression became more pronounced, spreading to include panic attacks.

Stress eating, being overweight and depression became a pattern for Mimi well into her adult life. She became one of the casualties identified in a report in JAMA, 2019 indicating that approximately 43 percent of adults with depression are obese, and adults with obesity are at increased risk of experiencing depression.

Stress eating, depression and being overweight ‘overruled’ her normal weight balance mechanism

Cut off from the social world, Mimi’s stress level continued to escalate. She felt too repulsive to reach out for connection with her adult siblings or her few friends whom she imagined were way too busy to deal with her. The world felt hostile, aggressive and unsafe. Bathed in strong feelings of danger resulted in increased stress that continued to disregulate the neurochemicals and hormones in her body.

The journal Cell Metabolism, April 2019 reported a study showing how chronic stress produces excess insulin, desensitizes the nerve cells in the emotional center of the brain (amygdala) so that you don’t get the signal that you are ‘full!’ You overeat, become overweight and get depressed that you have lost control of your body – feel even more stressed through dis-empowerment, and hide you shame under cover of depression. This is what was happening inside Mimi.

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Stress eating, depression and being overweight puts a crack in your grip on reality

Mimi suffered abdominal cramps, and disrupted sleep. She cried a lot at home in the late evenings and weekends, stuck in her trifecta of depression, dis-empowerment and despair. Medications to relax her abdominal muscles didn’t work, nor did herbal potions for sleep. Mimi’s stress eating, being overweight and depression locked her into a prison from which she saw no escape. She felt so bad that she imagined dying of a fatal illness (just as she had as a child, in an effort to get her parents to feel guilty about not being attentive to her needs), a car accident or being shot by a gun carrying crazy patient in the doctor’s office!

Stress eating, being overweight and depression led to panic attacks when driving to work and in closed places like underground parking areas. Mimi’s confidence was shaky making her more error prone in her front-line job. She wanted to hide away from patients and stay in a back office, not answer calls and delegate these jobs to others. In her mind she put it down to feeling fat, but that was her depression talking. She was scared that she might have a panic attack in front of a patient, or blow up at an impatient caller on the phone. She knew she couldn’t absorb any of the distress that patients naturally brought into the office.

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Stress eating, being overweight and depression reinforced her early feelings of being unsettled and unmoored

Although Mimi’s depression brought an element of numbness from feeling so raw, the panic attacks were like tornadoes grabbing her and shaking her into a terrifying feeling of unwieldy emotions over which she had no control. The stress of that disruption made her eat more, but she needed more and more food to have the same numbing effect. When her extreme diets didn’t alleviate her fears and didn’t take the weight off either she feared going into a place she might never come out of prompted her to have another go at individual counseling.

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Stress eating, being overweight and depression finally brought Mimi to take therapy seriously

Mimi had ‘tried’ therapy before when she was a young adult, wanting to be more in control of herself and climb a career ladder. The therapy focused on losing weight in collaboration with using appetite suppressants. But she put on even more weight, since the 12-week Cognitive Behavioral Therapy didn’t address the core issues of her feeling unlovable, faced with the growing probability that she’d never find a committed partner in life. She learned something about her triggers for comfort eating and to recognize signs of stress. But doing affirmations and giving herself short term goals didn’t touch that raw part of her until she began a more depth-oriented individual counseling.

Stress eating, being overweight and depression required an approach that honors the complexity, and the chronic compaction of emotional turmoil – that goes back and forth from the inception to present day – finding and connecting the threads through a therapeutic foundation that offers the crucial aspects of parenting that were missing in the early years – to undo the trifecta of depression, dis-empowerment and despair.

Mimi has finally found a secure and safe base where she can grow herself up as the therapeutic relationship rewired her brain for healthy emotional regulation and self-worth.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2019

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