Growing up, I remember learning that the primary responses to stress were “fight or flight”, and possibly “freeze”, but those always seemed to be the only options. I was therefore very excited to recently hear about another approach, which is to “tend or befriend”.
This seems to apply more to women than men, although it’s still a relatively new idea that needs more study. The basic thought is that in times of stress, certain chemicals lead women to tend to children (or others), and also to bond together, more often than they fight or flee.
I find all of that fascinating in its own right, but just as interesting was thinking about this in relation to f eating. I wondered if the way many of us turn to food in times of stress is perhaps an attempt to “tend” to ourselves. After all, when someone is ill or has suffered a loss, one of our first instincts is to bring them food. (See my earlier blog post about Food and Grief.) Why not do the same for ourselves? And there’s a reason we have the term “comfort food”.
And yet, certain food choices do not, in fact, do a good job of taking care of ourselves. When we overeat, or eat food that makes us feel foggy and uncomfortable, we actually end up worse off. Eating mindlessly also doesn’t always seem very comforting, if we consume food so quickly that we scarcely even notice what it is or tastes like.
What, then, might be a better option, especially if we think of it as tending ourselves?
Here are some ideas based on what helps me take care of myself in stressful times:
natural beauty (even if I can’t get outside, I can look at a picture or form a mental image)
talking to a friend
drinking herbal tea
Depending on the situation, these are not always possible, but remembering that I have options helps. It’s actually quite refreshing after all these years to realize that I’m not wired only to freeze up and internalize that stress, or try to hide from it, or lash out.
If I can choose instead to tend to myself with compassion and gentleness, I suspect I’ll feel much better in general. Time will tell, but I’m certainly willing to give it a try.