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Sources of Comfort

In times of stress or sorrow or anger, do you often turn to food for comfort and calming?

When I was younger, I pretty much always did this. Even if I had other options, I think food still played a role. It was habit, but it also seems to be encouraged by society – after all, why else would we have the idea of comfort foods? Plus, food was always there for me. No matter what else went on, it never let me down.

This habit has changed for me now, but it took a long time to get past it, and it happened in phases.

It started in late 2000, when I first noticed how often I ate for reasons other than hunger. I distinctly remember when I began choosing to comfort myself in other ways, after deciding I wouldn’t let other people’s actions or ideas about me make me do things I knew weren’t in my best interest.

At first, I had to consciously make this decision on a regular basis, until it started becoming more habitual. But even six years later, in the summer of 2006, when my aunt unexpectedly died, I found myself thinking, “I could really use some chocolate.”

I didn’t actually eat any chocolate, but I couldn’t help being both amazed and annoyed that this response to stress remained embedded in me.

Then I had the opposite reaction two years later, in the summer of 2008, when a childhood friend drowned. It hit me harder than I expected, and I sat down to write a poem about it. When I went to visit his parents a few days later, I brought them a copy of the poem, and his mother said, “Thank you for not bringing food!” They had been inundated with offerings of food and didn’t have room for any more.

Only then did I realize that I had not thought once about turning to food after his death. It came as a revelation, and it brought a strange sense of freedom, as if I had finally arrived.

I thought of this again recently because of another stressful situation, when seven people at my company were laid off last week, including two I worked very closely with. It was a tough day for all of us, but again, I did not feel inclined to reach for food.

Instead, I turned to other sources of comfort. I went for a walk, needing the fresh air and physical activity to help clear my head. I commiserated with remaining colleagues and reached out to those laid off. I talked to friends and family. I played some favorite music and sang along loudly. And, of course, I wrote.

I find all of this helpful to remember this time of year because even though – or perhaps because – it’s supposed to be so happy, it can also be very stressful, as well as being more than normally food abundant. It can therefore help to remember that even if we choose the food, we do have other means of comfort, and finding the right balance can be a great gift for ourselves.

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