I got an email from a reader last week with a question about the emotional vs. physical aspects of healing a sugar addiction. In 2008 she’d read my book, Overcoming Sugar Addiction, and was curious about the updated, 3rd edition, where I added more information on emotional healing from sugar.
She felt confused about how you heal – is it emotional? Physical? She said, “I thought sugar addiction was all biochemical – that it was just in the brain. But I see all kinds of things on your site about emotional eating and I’m confused. Which is it?”
This is a great question, and one I’m guessing many of you’ve had, as well. I’d love to share my perspective and offer some clarity.
Here’s what I see as the major components that contribute to eating disorders, food addiction, sugar addiction, and any substance addiction, for that matter:
- I believe that all addiction has a biochemical or physiological component. For example, if you’re addicted to sugar, you’re most likely sugar sensitive – someone who is biochemically sensitive to sugar. In your body and brain, sugar acts like a toxic drug – eating it makes you crave more; once you start eating it, you may find it hard to stop. Your sensitivity to sugar may arise from low or volatile blood sugar, excess candida, an unhealthy gut, hormonal imbalance, or a brain that is low in neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
- Many people who struggle with addiction, food addiction or overeating also cope with mild to moderate anxiety, depression, or ADD. This may arise from the same brain wiring that also makes you susceptible to sugar addiction. It may be hard to parse out which is which – are the cravings pointing to a deeper issue with depression, for example?
- Addictions also have emotional components. These are the deep, unmet emotional needs – needs for understanding, validation, empathy, love, compassion and more – that we’re trying to fill with food, sugar, obtaining the perfect body or another substance. The emotional roots of addiction can stem from childhood trauma (my mentor, Dr. Gabor Mate, says all addiction is rooted in childhood trauma), childhood wounds, and ways we got “stuck” developmentally.
- Addictions are also relational - how connected we feel to each other (and to ourselves and the Divine.) In developmental terms, this is called attachment. Attachment is our ground floor, basic need as human beings – our need to feel connected, to feel unconditionally accepted, and to give and receive love in secure, loving relationships. In the absence of this loving connection, we’ll seek out substitutes – like addictions. (For a detailed explanation on how attachment affects addiction, please read this post here.)
In my experience, it’s not either/or – either you heal physically or heal emotionally. It’s and – you need both to heal. Let’s parse this out on the physical/physiological and emotional/spiritual levels.
Healing on the physical level
You heal physically from addiction by meeting your body’s physiological needs. You may need physical support, like:
- changing how you eat
- healing your body’s hormonal/nutrient/mineral balance
- nourishing the body with herbs, supplements, or vitamins
- supporting your brain and body to care for any anxiety or depression that runs through your system
For help with this component, I recommend the work of Julia Ross, Kathleen des Maisons, Marcelle Pick, Daniel Amen and Donna Gates.
Changing patterns of self care
You may also need to support your body by making lifestyle changes that support your physiological needs. This is the realm of self care – creating a way of living that nourishes you deeply and one that honors your unique body and make up.
For example, most people I meet who struggle with “food stuff” are highly sensitive – people who are easily overstimulated, have a sensitive nervous system, and are intuitive and/or empathic. They may need down time, quiet, rest, and ways of lowering stress to thrive – but they often don’t give themselves these things.
I’ve found that many people’s challenges with food stem from these unmet needs. As children, we may have unconsciously developed patterns of suppressing, editing, or minimizing our physiological needs that we’re still living out today. We then use food to make up the difference.
We heal this pattern by creating a life that honors our physiological needs so that we don’t use food to fill the gap. And yet healing this pattern can feel scary and takes courage, because it typically brings up a lot of anxiety when we touch the shame and fear that’s kept us in these unhelpful patterns.
In addition to caring for your physical and physiological needs, you also need to care for your emotional and spiritual needs.
This is the work of:
- accepting, feeling, and caring for feelings
- deep listening – listening to our hurts with an attuned, compassionate, loving presence
- unconditional self love – a radical acceptance and integration of every part of us
- self compassion – forgiving ourselves
Emotional healing is fostered by:
- self kindness
- and a loving, secure relationship with the self.
This is the main focus of my work, and how I can best support you in healing from sugar addiction, binge eating/overeating and more.
Minimizing our deepest needs
Just as we may dismiss our physiological needs, many of us also minimize and suppress our emotional needs. We may minimize our needs because we carry beliefs that our needs are wrong – or that we’re wrong for having them in the first place. This is the realm of too much/not enough – I’m too sensitive, too emotional, too needy – or I’m not strong enough, tough enough, or together enough.
We undergo our inner journey to heal these beliefs and to shift these patterns. Instead of minimizing or shaming our needs, we turn towards them – we allow them, open to them, listen to them, and understand them.
Just as a loving mother helps a child feel validated and cared for, when you attune to your emotional needs, you’re allowing those hurting parts of you to be seen, heard and understood. You, too, feel validated. There is something very healing in this process – the tension and pain we’ve carried in our hearts, minds and bodies begins to soften and uncoil. Our empathy and compassion releases the hurt and opens up new pathways.
The result? We find that we’re able to change our addictive behavior. We also feel freer, lighter and more connected to ourselves – to the love that is at our core – and to each other.
How they intertwine
The healing path is not so clear cut between physical/physiological and emotional. They overlap. I began studying emotional healing because when I was physically healing from my eating disorders, all kinds of “stuff” kept arising and getting in the way – yep, my painful, false beliefs about myself, my wounds, unhealed trauma, and my suppressed needs and emotions. I had to dive into my emotional core to be able to follow through on the physical healing – the emotional healing made it possible for me to create new patterns of caring for my physical and physiological needs.
So if you keep your mind open, and your heart soft, you’ll find that each arena of growth – physical and emotional healing – feeds off of and needs the other. As you dive into the physical healing, you end up diving into the emotional healing. And as you dive into your emotional healing, you impact your physical healing.