Dr. Beth: Can you give me any ideas on how to break my bad habit of comforting and distracting myself from pain by eating? My pain has never been so bad and despite pain meds every day is a struggle. I’ve put on 10 lbs. this year. Help!!
Comfort eating is certainly understandable, especially in the context of pain and suffering. I also understand your desire to stop the cycle, since weight gain tends to worsen many pain conditions.
I recommend several things to help stave the weight gain and ideally to help you lose weight.
The most important thing to focus on first is getting better sleep. Poor sleep is associated with food craving and overeating. It’s also strongly associated with worse pain, so poor sleep can play into your comfort eating cycle.
Some of the best treatment for sleep involves focusing on sleep behaviors, or “sleep hygiene.” These involve setting a regular early bed time and sticking to it, rising early, using your bed only for sleep, avoiding daytime napping, and eating your evening meal two or more hours before you go to bed.
You should also allow your brain to “destimulate” in the evening: no TV, movies, computer, loud noises or bright lights in the 60-90 minutes before bedtime.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol as both disrupt sleep. Take a warm bath, if possible, and focus on relaxing before bedtime.
You mention that you are taking pain meds but do not say which kind. If you are taking opioids, be aware that opioids disrupt your sleep cycles and prevent you from achieving the deep, restorative stages of sleep. This is one reason why opioids can contribute to pain worsening over time.
While the temptation is to take more opioids for the increased pain, a better solution may be to take less or to taper off opioids and focus on non-opioid pain medications and other pain management modalities.
My second recommendation is exercise. Exercise is one of the best treatments for chronic pain of all kinds, so over time you may notice that gentle exercise actually reduces your pain.
The trick is to do the right kind of exercise for your body, and in the right amount. If you are unsure, schedule an evaluation with a physical therapist who is expert in chronic pain. Walking, gentle yoga, and warm water pool therapy are often some of the best exercise choices for people with chronic pain.
Daily exercise will help you sleep better, and it will lead to greater overall relaxation in your body. Greater relaxation means that your mind will be calmer.
My third recommendation is to obtain a relaxation audio CD developed specifically for chronic pain, and to use it daily. You may even use it several times a day; particularly during times when you are most likely to comfort eat.
You state it yourself: you are comfort eating. The solution is to find other ways to comfort yourself — ways that do not involve food. Make a list of small, quick, self-soothing activities you can do instead (fix a cup of hot tea, take a bath, do 10 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing, journal, read a few inspirational quotes, sit in nature for 5-10 minutes, or walk slowly for 5-10 minutes).
You can establish a new pattern of behavior for comforting yourself by using your self-soother list daily. When you find yourself really stressed or really craving foods, your two best interventions are using the relaxation CD or taking a warm bath. Or try them together!
Both of these activities will calm your nervous system and thus reduce the stress that triggers the automatic eating behavior.
My fourth recommendation is to make sure you are well hydrated.
My fifth recommendation is to make sure you eat a big salad with nutritious greens every day. This is part of good self-care and self-nurturing. Taking good care of yourself today will help you make better health choices tomorrow.
It’s not just about eating less, it’s about eating the right things. Giving your body good fuel is another way you can provide comfort and care to yourself.
Sixth and last: Don’t stay stuck! If you find yourself having trouble meeting your goals, seek the support of psychologist, therapist or health coach to help you get on the path to success.
Dr. Beth Darnall is a pain psychologist and clinical associate professor in the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. She has a particular interest in women’s pain issues.
Have a question for Dr. Beth?
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The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that! It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.