You’ve seen it in a hundred movies. The girl, face streaming with tears, surrounded by wads of tissues, creates a bonfire out of pictures of her ex and dives head-first into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, box of donuts or super-sized bag of cheese puffs. This eating and crying routine has become the post-breakup standard in modern media. Between sitcoms, movies, Lifetime, WE, and Oxygen, you can probably find this scene on TV at all times. Usually, in the next scene, the crying has moved onto a stationary bike or jog with a friend where our heroine laments not only the fact that her dream man is married, but that she ate an entire box of Ho-Ho’s. It’s no surprise to American women that food is an antidote to sadness, stress, disappointment, frustration, etc. Why else would the term “comfort food” exist? But, recent studies are showing a much more common cause of over-eating for both women and men, boredom.
Consider a scenario from your life. You’re home alone or with your everyday companions. You flip channels until you find something that’s just engaging enough to keep you awake. How many trips to the refrigerator do you then make? Do you hit the pizza place phone number you have on speed dial? When you finally choose to do something productive, is there a telltale trail of snack leftovers between you and the TV?
If not, you may stop reading now. Pat yourself on the back and go do three hours of spinning or whatever it is you perfect people do for fun. But, if so, resist the urge to wallow amongst your candy bar wrappers. Feeling blue will only enhance the problem (see paragraph one.) Wellness relies on being proactive, even if you don’t want to leave your couch.
What is boredom?
Overeater’s Anonymous will tell you that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Your particular problem is not that you are hungry. You are bored. But what is boredom? Boredom is the brain’s reaction to perceived monotony. Much like fatigue, it is involuntary and affects some people more suddenly and severely than others. In a bored state, the brain basically shifts into auto-pilot. Stresses and high emotions flat line, details blur, your attention wanes. You find yourself asking “What did I come in here after?” or “What did he just say?” Much like insomnia, you’re not really awake, but you are not asleep either. To break out of this boredom rut, people seek sleep or, more often, instant gratification.
Here’s an easy riddle. What’s readily accessible, inexpensive, somewhat comforting, and requires no effort? Junk food, of course! And the odds of avoiding it are against you. Studies at the Beth Israel Methadone clinic found that boredom is a key factor in whether drug addicts will relapse. If it can bring someone back to drugs, it can surely bring you back to the freezer! So what can you do?
On ambitious days:
If you’re feeling up to leaving the magical Land of Couch, do so! Many people associate food with home and/or privacy, so leave your comfort zone. Seek out places and activities that don’t have a built in lazy or snack-filled component. Ballpark hotdogs, and movie theatre popcorn are not your best bets. Exercise your mind and body, instead of your jaw.
- Stimulate your brain. Most museums and libraries don’t allow food inside, so there is no risk of snacking. If modern art or literature isn’t your style, mall walk and window-shop. Rather than thinking about food, it will engage your attention and the cool new styles will be motivating.
- Activate your body. It is completely impossible to eat chicken nuggets while running. (Please don’t try that.) If treadmills bore you, run outside. If it’s rainy or you just hate running, sign up for a group class. Yoga if you want to be serenely snack-free, and ballroom dancing if you’d like to slim down expressively.
- Engage your social side. Seek out friends and companions. Avoid meeting at restaurants to banter and binge. Take turns recommending activities that get you moving, and laugh as often as you can. It's aerobic!
On lazier days:
If the Land of Couch is just too enticing (or there is a Law and Order marathon on TV), staying in may be irresistible. Do not let that defeat you. There are plenty of ways to fight the big blue boredom monster.
- Vary your routine. Simply changing channels does not count. Do not let yourself become accustomed to anything. Change your position on the couch. Alternate between different styles of music. Find an activity you can do on effortlessly other than eat. Read a book, paint your nails, write in a journal. If you’re a video game fan, get moving with physical games like Wii tennis or RockBand.
- Look on the bright side. According to psychology researcher John D. Eastwood, “Rather than fighting boredom we would do well to pause and learn from the experience.” Ask yourself why you are bored and how often it happens. Look for patterns. Once these questions are addressed, boredom can motivate action or deep contemplative thought. It also may be signaling areas in your life that are under-stimulating and therefore need change. Is your job too simple? Are you spending too much time alone? Is there something out in the world you’re using TV to avoid?
- Allow yourself a little. Portion control is your new best ally. If the pizza-panic strikes, it’s OK to give in once in a while. Be mindful of when and what you are eating. Take time to savor each bite. That way, you won’t be staring at an empty pizza box wondering where it all went. Do not eat snacks directly from their containers. Measure out a small plate of chips and put away the rest rather than eating from the bag on the couch. Set limits and stick to them. Also, clean up the evidence. Keeping trash and leftovers around is both unsanitary and discouraging. Train yourself to clean up as you go along. This way, you’ll be more aware of how much you’ve had before it is too late.
Bottom line: To combat boredom, enjoy life’s pleasures in small doses. To combat overeating, enjoy your food in small portions. Good things, as we all know, come in small packages anyhow. Enjoy!
© 2008 New Perspectives. Permission to copy this article is granted provided the authors are notified and the following bio information is included:
Kathleen Passanisi PT, CSP, CPAE is an internationally recognized transformational speaker, therapeutic humor expert, healthcare professional and author. She has spoken to bajillions of people about life balance, wellness, the power of perception, and the link that exists between humor and health. Kathleen is a member of the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame and the funniest woman in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri (and, quite possibly, the Western Hemisphere.) For more information on Kathleen's presentations, books and products please visit the New Perspectives website at www.kathleenpassanisi.com
Annie Passanisi is the daughter of a motivational speaker (see above) who inherited her mother's passion for women's issues and the platform. She is also a Chicago-based actor, singer, freelance writer and editor, 1950s pop culture enthusiast, and swing set champion. For more information, please visit www.TheAnniePassanisi.com.