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Sarah Chana Radcliffe – how does food protect us?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto Canada, counseling parents, couples, and individuals. She is also an author, writes a weekly column in the Mishpacha magazine, and gives webinars in conjunction with Jewish workshops.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer, not a psychologist. Originally, I wanted to be a speech therapist. I studied it but life evolved and I became a psychologist instead.
(Gila) As a dietitian, I deal a lot with body image and people who are struggling with their weight. As a psychologist, you also have clients to deal with in regard to their body image and weight. I am curious to hear how you deal with this when it comes up.
I think of eating issues as having two parts. There is only one part that I deal with. One part is that there is a body and mind. The science of how food is digested, biological systems, and different body types. This is someone who may want help with their actual diet-what to eat and how much to eat. I don’t deal with that.
The part I deal with is the second part. The psychological aspect of the relationship we have with ourselves and with food. This comes up in general counseling all the time. It seems like body image and the way we feel about ourselves is a common issue that people struggle with.
(Gila) Do you think 100 or 500 years ago, people struggled with their body image the way we do today? Nowadays we have mirrors everywhere and of course social media. I don’t think I know of any women who like the way that they look.
I wasn’t around 500 years ago, and I didn’t do research so I don’t know how it was then, but you are right about today’s world. I do think it has gotten worse because of how painfully obvious the visual world is nowadays. But it may also have always been like this. Women have it built into their system to be attractive. It could be that self-consciousness that causes them to care about how they look.
When this comes up with my clients, there are many different tools that I use.
One of the common ways the issue of weight comes up is when we are dealing with life stress and emotional stress. A lot of people have used food as a comfort for their emotional stress in childhood. Another way this comes up is growing up in a household that’s very food-oriented, it’s not as common, and is a different issue.
It’s a form of addiction in the same sense that we can alter our mood and our stress levels by the chemistry of food.
Salty foods do it in one-way, sugary foods another way, and fatty foods another way. People have their preferences depending on their type of biological stress. It’s like any other drug or addictive habit that we might develop in response to the desire or the need to soothe emotional distress and pain.
A person who has complex post-traumatic stress disorder. A situation that arises out of two decades of growing up with developmental stress. Where a child would be living in a dysfunctional/abusive/troubled household and the child needs to function to go to school, grow up, make friends an have a life. There’s a lot of energy that has to be walled off in order for the child to do that. That process is built into a child’s nervous system. They have the capacity to disassociate from whatever struggles are going on.
When I say struggles it could mean sexual abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse. But it could also be more normal stresses like an illness in the family, a special needs child in the family, and overwhelmed parents, whether emotionally, physically, or financially. Or a family struggling with marital problems or divorce.
Fortunately, a child’s nervous system has automatic ways of taking this material and putting it aside. Sometimes it’s for a long time, decades even.
But inside things are kind of falling apart. The child may act out or may be very anxious. Or the child may be spacy and numb. If the child starts with addictive habits, it can roll into adulthood as well. There are all different kinds of responses children have.
When a client comes for marital problems, mood issues, or high anxiety, that individual may have been born with a predisposition of whatever they are struggling with and/or was in a family that was stressed; most families have stress nowadays. The child learns early on that food can help him cope. Then for two decades he’s practicing that coping mechanism so it goes to the brain as a go-to automatic subconscious response.
So now the person is 35 or 45 years old, 100- or 200-pounds overweight, and talking about life, not necessarily food.
When you cure stress the consequences of all that wiring, and all of the biological changes that happen in the body that have been overfull or underfed, they need their own treatment or the body part of it. After dealing with your issues in therapy, body fat doesn’t just melt away.
However, there will be a shift in how much the person can do, because now they have energy freed up. So now they can address the legacy of their weight, if it was because of their stress.
In clinical practice, unwanted weight that came up as an emotional defense is a common way that an eating topic will come up.
Some clients come in and want to deal with their weight right away. Other clients come in and talk about their marriage or mood and they never mention their weight. It’s not presented as one of their issues. As we do therapy, after some period of work the person will say I’m tired of being overweight. Now they’re ready to deal with it. This can happen as they get healthier, and they realize they don’t have to soothe themselves that way anymore.
Unfortunately, nowadays, most of us lead stressful lives. In order to grow up functioning properly, we need coping mechanisms.
Throughout the day our circadian rhythm goes up and down. We self-medicate by drinking coffee or eating something sugary to keep our mood leveled. If a child grows up in a household where she sees her parents meditating regularly, going for therapy, journaling, or seeing self-help books around the house, the child knows that we address stress, psychologically and physically. When a parent models good stress management skills, that really helps the child. Children are always watching and doing what their parents do. If they see their parents doing nothing in response to stress, they will turn to what their friends do-drugs, alcohol, starving.
Emotional coaching is also important, naming feelings.
Unnamed feelings become overwhelming on the inside and need to be silenced, whether by turning to drugs or something like that. Whereas a parent who uses a name for the feeling, it’s like a key to the emotion, you’re letting it out of the cage and minimizing the emotion.
(Gila) The research on intuitive eating says that food isn’t chemically addictive like drugs and alcohol, but the pattern of using food is addictive. So, it can take time, but you can find other coping mechanisms. I was drawn to intuitive eating because of the self-compassion you develop for yourself and digging deep to figure out where this coping mechanism came from so that you can change it. I think it’s important for people to realize that you can be beautiful at every size and work on body acceptance and loving themselves for they are.
That’s where your expertise is different than mine. Therapy covers more of the self-hate aspect. I like the idea of needing to broaden our concept of beauty. The clothing magazines have certainly changed from how the models used to look to how they do now. Even Barbie dolls changed.
Self-love is a deep concept. You can’t just tell someone to appreciate how they look in their size. The parts inside of us that are having trouble doing that, are deeper than the cultural message and images.
Cultural images don’t disturb a healthy person’s sense of being ok, but most of us don’t have that. Most women are self-hating at a lot of different levels. Once we get rid of that whole pattern of self-rejection this gets scooped up as well.
In order to start to heal, the parts model of psychology is definitely helpful with this. I like to look at our psyche in the parts model.
We could simplify them into a bus model. The driver’s seat is empty and there are many different passengers on the bus. On top of the bus, there’s a witness who can see who is in the driver’s seat today and where the bus is going.
When you get a nice adult in the driver’s seat, that part takes care of the whole bus and makes sure it arrives at its destination. The adult part will know where it wants to go. But when a child is in the driver’s seat, the bus inevitably crashes, because a child part can’t drive. So, we want to make sure that the part that’s most often in the driver’s seat is an adult who’s taking us to our overall destination.
An adult part can hear a child part cry in one of the passenger seats. Whether because it’s upset, overwhelmed, or confused. Instead of allowing that child part to get into the driver’s seat, the adult has to organize a babysitter, therapist, mother, or some kind of helper person who is also a passenger to hold that crying child so I can drive my bus.
Using this model, we can do a lot of reorganization of the inner world and help ourselves while some of the parts are hurting. We need to help ourselves unblend. When we use the word “I” to describe ourselves, that way of thinking prevents the helping of all the different parts that actually need to help. It’s about organizing the inner family.
Sarah Chana Radcliffe is a psychologist in a private practice in Toronto Canada, counseling parents, couples, and individuals. Mrs. Radcliffe is the author of the HarperCollins Publications “Raise your kids without raising your voice” and the “the fear fix”, as well as 7 books on Jewish family life and emotional well-being, including her most recent release “better behavior now!” Sarah Chana is a weekly columnist for the Family First section of the internationally distributed Mishpachah magazine. In conjunction with Jewish Workshops, she has produced numerous webinar classes on parenting, marriage, anxiety, and stress management. She currently runs a live, ongoing weekly family-life webinar series called “The Family Circle.” Sarah Chana provides daily tools for parenting, family life, and emotional well-being on her Facebook and Instagram parenting pages, as well as through her daily parenting posts email list.
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-Gila Glassberg, MS, RDN, CDN, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
If you are ready to make peace with food and never say diet again, check out my website https://gilaglassberg.com and apply for a free 20 minute clarity call. I look forward to hearing from you!
Gila Glassberg is a Master's level registered dietitian and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. As a teenager, she was faced with constant diet talk, body shaming and obsessive guilt around food. She struggled with disordered eating. This is what propelled her into the field of nutrition. She uses a non-diet, weight-neutral approach called Intuitive Eating. She helps growth oriented women break out of chronic dieting, and regain clarity into what is really important to them.
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