Thinking about food to ease pain

Many therapists consider eating disorders a way to cope with the pain of life- a distraction, if you will. Although I don't necessarily agree with the anorexia-as-a-coping-mechanism line of thought, some new research says that there is a grain of truth to this.

Shifting your brain's attention away from pain (in this case, the authors tested physical pain) and onto something pleasurable (food) raised a person's pain tolerance and helped them better cope with chronic and acute pain. Not only is food itself pleasurable, but it can also bring up positive memories of times when that food was enjoyed and shared with others.

Says the ABC News report:

And, in the midst of a crisis, when the mind is flailing for anything to latch on to for distraction, it can help to know what to focus on that will alleviate pain...

..."Pain is an emotional response and, as such, can be modified by emotions," said Dr. Peter Staats, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and another author on the study. "A positive emotional thought of any type will function as a dampening effect on pain."

Relaxation is a natural way to soothe the body's stress response to pain. Repetitive practices such as meditation, prayer, movement techniques like yoga, and visualization can help draw the mind's focus away from pain. As a result, the body's stress level is lowered and the pain does not feel as acute.

Constant thinking about food is a symptom of starvation. So is heightened anxiety, and perhaps a feedback loop is created, where increased starvation means both more anxiety and more food thoughts that help alleviate that.

A person with an eating disorder can't help but focus on food, but maybe this focusing is having a beneficial effect. Starvation can blunt emotions, and perhaps so can constantly thinking about food. Which is one more reason why refeeding can be so difficult.

Has anyone found this to be true?

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MelissaS said...

my eating disorder is absolutely a distraction from everything else. i will focus on my ED whenever i don't want to think about other things -- i am very conscious these days that it's a coping tool. back when i was actively anorexic and then bulimic, i was less aware that it all kept me very busy, particularly during the very painful years when both my parents were dying.

Libby said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure this one works for me. But then, I really can't recall a time when I ever felt that food was pleasurable. Perhaps it existed... but I don't remember ever being one of those people for whom eating was "fun". (A piano student of mine recently filled in the blanks for his "I Like" song -- a little activity in his book -- with things like reading, recess, karate, eating... I had to really check myself and stop myself from reacting to that. Whenever something like that happens, I have to really remind myself that I'm the one with the crazies here... that it really is me, not them.)

The brain does work in mysterious ways... but I guess it would make more sense to me if the constant thinking about food was more of a survival instinct than a sort of pleasure principle.

Dan said...

Hmmm it is going to take awhile to get my head around that post.

AJ said...

I agree. starvation and anxiety go hand in hand. sometimes i used to wonder why i was thinking about food (even though i didnt feel like eating) and then i realised its because i was actually starving!

Gaining Back My Life said...

Wow, this is a mirror of my life right now. Dealing with chronic pleurisy led me into a relapse of my ed, although this time it was anorexia not bulimia. It is a pain I can 'control' (or at least thought I could in the beginning).

Now it's not in my control, but it still distracts me from my lung pain. Great post.

emmy. said...

i think something here is being a bit misunderstood. an eating disorder, like any other form of self-harm, is a coping mechanism. think about it.. when do you use behaviors the most? when we're stressed, when we're in emotional pain, when we're anxious.. it's a way to cope, just like self-injury or smoking and other such behaviors. these are situations that are hurting ourselves, but we can control them when we can't control painful emotions that we're not sure how to deal with.

i don't believe that we use it in the way they say; by thinking about something more pleasurable like food. food seems like it's not so much a pleasure to people with eating disorders, at least it wasn't for me. i think the news is twisting the idea of this whole concept.

MelissaS said...

i agree with emmy -- she summed it up perfectly -- for me

Carrie Arnold said...

I'm conflicted as to whether EDs are a coping mechanism. I mean, stress is likely to trigger a relapse of depression or other anxiety disorder, or even physical disorders, but we don't call that a "coping mechanism."

I don't doubt the correlation between relapse and stress, nor do I doubt that eating disorders blunt uncomfortable feelings. I just don't know if you can call that a coping mechanism.

If it is a way to cope, it's an inadvertant one, I think. To say that someone stops eating or starts bingeing and purging as a way to cope with anxiety is a little unlikely. EDs start for any number of reasons. However, most sufferers find that behaviors do allieviate uncomfortable feelings, at least temporarily. And that stopping behaviors leads to an increase in those feelings. Which seems less like a coping mechanism and more like a "stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Some of this is the verbal splitting of hairs. I definitely see how EDs can be a way to cope- and that sufferers benefit by learning new ways to deal with uncomfortable feelings. But I also have read a lot of scientific literature, and I'm not sure how all of that jives with the idea of "coping mechanism."

Laura Collins said...

I'm thinking the issue of "coping" depends on whether you are think this is a conscious choice and whether you believe the patient has control of the process.

When I hear "coping" I hear conscious control.

When I think of the cognitions and mechanics of restriction/bingeing/purging I think of compulsion and a lack of conscious awareness.

A tool, to my mind, is being used.

An eating disorder, until the final stages of full recovery, strike me as the opposite of a tool. Patients are being USED by, not using.

There are, of course, secondary benefits that become conscious and a Siren call to remain ill - no doubt.

Carrie Arnold said...

Yes, Laura, thank you for clarifying.

There are benefits to EDs- they do stifle the uncomfortable emotions. I know when I got so horribly depressed right when I first got sick, the prospect of watching the scale go down did get me out of bed in the morning. And my OCD rituals and compulsions helped temporarily (momentarily, really) quell the anxiety.

But I don't see eating disorders as a conscious choice, and so I had a hard time seeing them as a way to cope.

Thank you, everyone, for giving me some very good things to think about, and for joining in the discussion and being honest.

ann said...

i "like" my ed because it keeps me busy. i can occupy myself all day, every day by going to the gym, thinking about food, preparing ridiculous and time consuming low calorie meals. i feel a lot calmer and like i can accomplish a lot more, it also stops me from harming myself in other ways. i want to get better, but there's so much i would rather not think about, and rather not feel like doing to myself. i'm anxious about everything and when i'm not eating enough the only thing i'm anxious about is food. it's just so much easier to deal with.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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