Welcome To Syrona
Short-Term Therapy For Emotional Overeating
Are You Tired of Struggling With Food and Your Weight?
Do you frequently find yourself overeating, even though you feel terrible about yourself afterwards? Do you feel compelled to eat any time you are stressed, nervous, sad or angry? Perhaps you sometimes find yourself bingeing without even realizing it. Maybe you feel trapped in a cycle of overeating, and your body and your habits make you feel disgusted with yourself. You may have told yourself that you are weak, broken or worthless. Or, maybe you haven’t had these experiences because you feel numb, disengaged and down most of the time. Perhaps you have already tried to address all of this with a therapist, but nothing seems to work. You might wish that you could stop feeling so uncomfortable in your skin and start having a healthy relationship with food.
With Help, You Can Stop Emotional Overeating
For nearly 15 years as therapists, we have helped people break free from the cycles of overeating and self-judgment that are holding them back from full, satisfying lives. Here at Syrona, we specialize in working with clients who are dissatisfied with the standard one-hour therapy session, but wish to avoid time-consuming and expensive residential or in-patient care. In intensive, personalized, multi-day sessions, we help you unpack your story and find real, lasting relief from emotional overeating. And, if you are currently in therapy, we can work with your therapist so that you can continue the progress you make during the intensive work at Syrona. No matter how frustrated, exhausted or overwhelmed you may feel, there is hope for change in your life.
In our work together, we give you individualized attention and get to the heart of the issues that are contributing to your harmful relationship with food. We are warm, compassionate, and highly trained therapists who will meet you where you are as we push you to dig deep within yourself. We start with the premise that we all are doing the best we can given how our “systems” have been “wired” so to speak, based on our experiences in life. When food becomes more than a source of nourishment and enjoyment, and begins to function as a way to retreat from life, there is a reason. We work to figure out what this reason is – and what to do about it. Overeating does not have to be a way of life.
If You Feel Trapped by Emotional Overeating, You Are Not Alone
It is not secret that many people overeat in response to stress. Research indicates that almost 40% of adults admit to overeating when upset. With more and more studies identifying the powerful effect sugar has on the brain’s reward centers, we now understand why so many people attempt to manage their mood with food. If uncomfortable feelings can be managed with sugar, then overeating might be the “original gateway drug”. Experts in the field of overeating estimate that 75% of overeating is done for emotional reasons. So, if you overeat and find it difficult to stop, it is not because of a lack of “will” or “willpower”. It may be your best attempt to deal with painful emotions.
Here at Syrona, we have worked in the overeating and eating disorder field for 15 years. We have helped many clients overcome their automatic, excessive eating habits by focusing on the underlying issues driving them to overeat. To give the clearest picture of how we work, we would like to share a story with you. While we have drawn on real experiences, out of respect for the importance of confidentiality, we have changed parts of the story and all identifying information. However, the essence of the story and the treatment remains. With hard work, dedication and a commitment to finding your emotional truth, you – like this client – can stop feeling controlled by food and build the life you want.
The Story of ‘Helena Troy’
When Helena, an only child, was an infant, her mother passed away suddenly in a car accident. Her father remarried not long after, and Helena grew up in the care of her father and stepmother. Although her father was kind, he was quiet, reserved, and passive in times of conflict. He also role modeled using food as a source of comfort, and Helena watched his weight increase dramatically over the years. Her stepmother, due in part to trauma in her own life, was a volatile, self-focused, and mentally and physically abusive alcoholic. Sometimes, she would be terrifying silent. At other times she would explode in rage. Helena was then the trapped target of her verbal and physical abuse. Helena remembered that when she became a teenager, she tried to dress up and look nice, to go out with her friends. Her stepmother mocked her mercifully. Helena reported that she eventually stopped trying to care about her appearance. She increasingly turned to food for a source of comfort and pleasure in an otherwise pretty bleak existence. On birthdays and Christmas, Helena would open gifts never knowing if there ever was going to be a real gift or just a blank box, and she would watch her stepmother laugh at Helena’s hurt and embarrassment. Helena truly felt unsafe, unwelcome and unwanted in her family. Helena’s father at first attempted to stand up for Helena, but these efforts only served to enrage her stepmother more, so Helena stopped complaining. Her father seemed relieved that Helena and her stepmother were getting along better, but in reality, the abuse was only getting more secretive. As a teenager, Helena adopted humor as a defense. She was smart, and used her wits to develop a finely attuned sense of humor that had others laughing more “with” her than “at” her. Despite being overweight throughout her child and teenage years, Helena had many friends while at school. Her after school social life was almost non-existent, as her stepmother made it miserable for Helena to join clubs, or go out with friends. Helena never dated, not once, out of fear for what her stepmother would say or do. After years of being told that she was “stupid”, “worthless” and “unable to make it” on her own”, Helena began to get de-sensitized to these messages, and they became familiar, even though they still hurt. Her efforts to push back against them got smaller and smaller. In addition, her father often expressed appreciation for Helena’s help at home, and thanked her for being there for him. Giving up on achieving any lasting autonomy, Helena stayed home and took refuge in food, the one acceptable source of support her stepmother seemed to allow. When the time came to go to college, Helena ended up attending a community college, so that she didn’t have to fight her stepmother or disappoint her father by going away to school.
DECISION TO ATTEND THE INTENSIVE
By the time Helena made the decision to attend her first Intensive, she was in her early 30s, single, living at home, underutilized and unhappy in her job and over 135 pounds overweight. She wanted to lose weight, but she felt trapped by her own habits. Her situation at home hadn’t improved. Her stepmother constantly belittled her for living with her parents and doing nothing with her life. Although she felt miserable and would just go to her room, turn on the TV and overeat when she was at home, moving out didn’t seem like much of an option. Every time she planned to pursue a more satisfying job or move to her own place, her stepmother – who had just belittled her for staying – accused her of abandoning the family and thinking herself better then what she was. More importantly, Helena worried about what would happen to her father if she left him alone.
Although Helena acknowledged that she was unhappy, her ability to tune out her painful emotions had worked well enough that Helena was more scared of making changes than she was of staying the same. She wasn’t happy, but as long as she had the comfort of food, she could tell herself that things weren’t that bad. Of course, she also struggled with a great deal of self-hatred due to her body size and eating habits. Over the years, Helena had attempted more than 25 diets. Losing weight only to gain it back again created painful emotional roller coasters for Helena. Despite several “successful” diets, some even lasting for up to 8 months, she could never fully get herself out of the entrenched patterns of overeating. Physically, Helena was not well either. Diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, she was seriously considering gastric bypass surgery. Her doctor was hesitant to perform the surgery, believing that Helena was at high risk for overeating after surgery. Helena agreed. She wanted to have the surgery but believed she would absolutely gain the weight back if she didn’t confront the emotional patterns that kept her overeating behavior in play. Helena’s therapist was also a powerful ally in getting Helena to attend the Intensive, hoping that it could break through Helena’s powerful defenses against feeling her emotions.
Helena began the Intensive describing herself as a depressed, anxious woman with almost no self-confidence. Yet she presented as a funny, upbeat woman – evidence of how well Helena wore her “social mask”. Helena fully owned this incongruity – her outside persona did not match the dull, persistent ache she felt inside. Helena expressed fears that the Intensive would not “really help” because despite seeing a therapist once a week, she didn’t feel that talking about her life was really helping. After basic introductions, Helena started her Intensive by doing a ‘Life Timeline’, one of the more effective ways we organize a person’s history. We spent several hours on this task alone. At the end of the first morning, Helena was able to see her life diagramed out in front of her. Helena began to understand how the emotional atmosphere of her early childhood impacted the way she felt, thought, and behaved – not only as a teenager, but as an adult. Helena started to recognize that she had an “internal model” of herself and the world that was shaped by her early assumptions and beliefs – namely that she was unloved, unwanted, and “disposable”. Most shocking to Helena was her recognition that these “young” assumptions and beliefs were still serving as a foundation for her self esteem. In other words, the Life Timeline exercise gave Helena a stark, visual road map of how her early life “trauma” led to the development of many of the traits and coping strategies she has now adopted as part of her adult personality.
EDUCATION ABOUT EMOTIONS
Armed with valuable information about Helena’s background history, we began the education phase of the Intensive. Here Helena learned a lot about emotions; the how and why they work the way they do – and most importantly – what happens when she pushes them away and avoids feeling them. She learned about trauma, particularly trauma’s effects on the developing child. Helena began to understand that the very thoughts and behaviors she had been judging as moral and character “weaknesses” were just predictable and understandable biological and emotional patterns put in play to survive her particular home environment. Using examples directly from her life, Helena began to “connect the dots” between her biological needs for survival and the difficulties she was having making changes in her life today.
As we prepared for the experiential (deeper work) phase of the Intensive, Helena also got acquainted with her “child” and “teenager” belief systems. As a child, Helena felt vulnerable, powerless and helpless. As a teenager, Helena developed the first coping strategies to deal with that vulnerability and pain. For Helena, these early strategies included numbing herself out (daydreaming, snacking), not allowing herself to think about anything that made her feel “bad” (we call this “compartmentalizing”), self-deprecating humor and binge eating. Helena realized that while the ‘child’ and the ‘teenager’ Helena had grown into an adult, the emotional patterns established early on still were active today. Whenever adult Helena wanted to make changes in how she lived, these old emotional patterns got activated, keeping her “stuck” using old and long outgrown ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving.
Through the education phase of the Intensive, Helena started to see that she did indeed have significant strengths and reasons to value herself. She acknowledged that her younger self had to figure out a way to survive without putting herself (or her father) at terrifying risk. By allowing herself to first remember, then FEEL, Helena was able to become more fully aware of just how abusive her stepmother had been, how passive and helpless her father really was, and how scared, angry, sad, guilty, and disgusted she really felt. As we went deeper into the emotional work, Helena remembered more of her past, such as the times her stepmother would sometimes hit her for no reason or discipline small mistakes (such as a spill) by twisting her arm until Helena cried. Helena remembered one terrifying experience when her stepmother grabbed her by the neck, and choked her until Helena passed out. At first, Helena recalled the memories with little emotion, but with the understanding of emotions and their value, and feeling more safe with her therapist and the process, she started to be more in touch with the emotional “truth” of her experience. As she told her stories, she wrestled with her old defenses against feeling. Helena worked hard to give herself “permission” from the teenage part of herself (who strongly believed feelings were dangerous) to really feel the full range of her emotions.
One of the biggest hurdles for Helena during the Intensive was to think differently about emotions. After so many years of numbing her feelings, Helena was afraid of them – they did not feel safe, okay or valuable. Helena wondered what the point was to let herself feel if feeling made her feel worse. As she learned about the value of being “better at feeling”, and not just “feeling better”, she allowed her feelings to surface and listened to the “signals” they were trying to tell her, and they told her a lot. Her first big breakthrough came when she allowed herself to feel the full depth of her sadness. Helena was able to let herself cry deeply for some of the more painful losses she suffered as a young girl: the loss of her mother, the loss of an “idealized father” that would “choose” her, and rescue her. And, for the childhood she never had. Helena also felt her anger. Using variations of the empty chair technique (Gestalt method), Helena “spoke” to her parents with radical honesty. She yelled. She said everything (and then some!) that she had long been holding back. She was able to release long pent up anger physically, using a (soft) bat that made a lot of noise – something she was highly reluctant to do at the beginning of the Intensive. She unearthed enough anger that we even went out to a vacant area so she could feel the power of her anger – and she smashed old dinner plates against a concrete wall. An important reason Helena needed to feel her emotions was not just to feel for feelings sake. She needed to let the emotions run their natural course, which in this case was to help Helena recognize just how helpless she really was. Helena’s anger was natural given the circumstances, but ultimately what Helena needed to allow herself to know was that her anger couldn’t (and didn’t) save her. She needed to “surrender” to the fights long ago lost. So, after smashing a number of plates, Helena started to cry. She finally stopped throwing the plates (“this is changing anything” she said, almost in surprise). At this point she felt deep grief. And guilt for not “saving” her father. And regret. Lots of regret, for a life and opportunities lost for so long in this negative cycle.
FINDING HER WAY BACK TO SELF COMPASSION
One of the more pivotal moments of the Intensive was when Helena reconnected to her visceral feelings of disgust. She had originally resisted the idea that she found anyone disgusting, especially her parents. Yet as Helena got “real”, she felt this emotion strongly. After acknowledging some powerful feelings of disgust for her stepmother, Helena was asked to focus on the strongest feelings of disgust- those towards herself. She was given an exercise was to look into a full length mirror, and challenge herself to allow the disgust she felt for herself to come forth. In doing so, Helena struggled with speaking out loud the judgements and vitriol she was feeling towards herself. In doing so, she surprised herself by feeling spontaneous feelings of self-compassion. She then was challenged to find something, no matter how small, of value in the reflection before her. Self-compassion is so essential to healing, so to move forward she had to find some empathy somewhere, somehow. For a long while, Helena looked deep into the mirror. Slowly she began to cry. Then sob. She fell to the floor, and started apologizing, painfully, to the little girl she once was, to the teenager who tried just to survive, and the adult she was now. In his moment, Helena saw past her body, past her disgust, into her pain. She found her humanity – she found her innocence. She found herself. A self that she was beginning to love.
What was critical about this part of Helena’s work was that Helena the ‘Adult’ was now able to re-define the core assumptions the teenager had made those many years ago about her self worth and value. By activating Helena’s emotions, her adult understanding was able to be more fully integrated into a more complex and flexible sense of self. This altered her old assumptions and beliefs at a deep and core level.
In essence, by facing (and feeling) her long-avoided emotions, Helena was able to find her way back to a sense of self based on love, not blame, criticism, and judgement. For Helena, this shift in self worth broke her lifelong cycle of self loathing, overeating, and self punishment.
AFTER THE INTENSIVE
As the Intensive came to a close, Helena was unsure about what the future might bring. What was telling what that Helena was now more “ok” with being scared and unsure. By going through this experience, Helena had dramatically increased her tolerance for being emotionally uncomfortable. She was less avoidant of the painful feelings her emotions generated. As a result, Helena was able to take more risks on her own behalf, by being more emotionally honest with herself (and with others). And, after returning home, she found it harder and harder to accept her current living situation. She “knew” too much to pretend that she didn’t hurt. She was now willing and able to feel all the uncomfortable feelings she had been burying.
Helena’s therapist was a valuable resource after the Intensive. She was able to support, encourage, and maintain the changes Helena had made at the Intensive. The first change Helena noticed was that she felt different when she first tried her old coping strategy of overeating at home. She reported that she was frustrated because it didn’t seem to work anymore. So, with her therapist’s encouragement, Helena took a risk and started going out with friends more and more. And she was surprised at how good it felt. Within a month of returning from the intensive, Helena made the decision to move out and made it clear to her parents that she was going to get her own apartment.
When Helena stood her ground about moving out she was particularly surprised when her father not only supported her – but defended Helena’s right to do so with his wife. Helena started to have long avoided (but needed) conversations with her father about their past and their present. Importantly, she increasingly stopped engaging with her stepmother. Shocking to Helena was her stepmother’s response – when yelling and intimidation no longer worked, her stepmother withdrew into stony silence. Helena felt “gleeful” as she experienced a sense of personal power she had not ever had before. She found a better job and despite her fears, she made the decision to take it, even though it meant she had to move to another state. While each of these changes triggered small relapses in her overeating, each time Helena was able to identify the feelings she was “stuffing” and stop the cycle. Despite losing almost 40 pounds, Helena chose to still undergo the gastric bypass surgery, where she lost an additional 65 pounds. Today, 6 years later, Helena reports that she is happily married, holding a healthy weight and living a full life.
THE RATIONALE FOR HELENA’S THERAPY
Helena’s story, unfortunately, is not unusual in it’s description of a child who grew up with many of her basic (and critical) needs not met because of emotional and physical abuse. Until fairly recently, the effects of early childhood trauma on the developing mind and body was not understood (or even, in some circles, acknowledged). However, thanks to more sophisticated technology and research, we are now learning a lot about the emotional, cognitive, and physical effects of early trauma on the developing human being. Helena’s reactions can now be understood as a byproduct of early trauma that left her with a biological “system” that left her unable to shift gears emotionally. In other words, she could not just change her emotional road map of herself and the world just by trying intellectually. Even as an adult, despite having the chance to escape her dysfunctional family home, Helena found herself staying in her childhood home and the abusive environment despite knowing that it was not good for her and that she “should” leave.
So, 2 big questions emerge:
1) Why does this happen?
As humans, we are constantly adapting to our environment. As children, we grow up in family systems that we don’t question. Like asking a fish about the water they swim in, children can not even consider their lives as anything but their “normal”. And to survive, they adapt. This means learning how to behave, what to do and what not to do in order to be safe and get basic needs met. This can mean, in dysfunctional families, the strategies for surviving childhood might “accidentally” create mental health havoc. For example, in Helena’s case, she learned to numb out pain, especially the feeling signals associated with fear, anger, and sadness. While doing this “allowed” her to live in an unsafe household, it also kept her from being able to act on those feelings when it was more appropriate to do so- such as when she grew up and had a chance to move out and get away. Compartmentalizing emotions can be useful at times, but if we continuously set our emotions aside, we stop listening to the important signals they send – signals that guide us to act. And, without feeling our emotions fully, we begin to disengage from life.
In addition to the influences of the early family environment, other factors come into play that can encourage us to tune out our true reactions. These include our peer groups, culture, societal norms and subcultures to which we belong. Societal norms often encourage us to push away negative feelings and seek pleasure and/or immediate gratification instead. But, this isn’t a long-term solution. Our negative emotions are just the other side of our amazing, joyful ones.
2) Why did the Intensive help Helena get “unstuck”? To make the very changes she “knew” to make but could not before attending the Intensive?
If intellectually understanding ourselves was enough to make lasting change, everyone would benefit from all the good advice we get from friends, family, co-workers, even TV! However, when people are are emotionally stuck as Helena was when she started the Intensive, it is rare that their problems stem from a lack of understanding or knowledge. Helena’s biology was her problem – an emotional system of thinking, feeling, and behaving that was formed under less than ideal conditions for the development of safety, self-esteem, or autonomy. Instead, Helena found a solution (rather creative!) for survival – turning “off” the painful signals her emotions were sending so she could function day to day.
The Intensive gave Helena a powerful and compelling reason to challenge the very strategies she used to adapt to her home environment. Understanding how emotions work helped give Helena the motivation to WANT to feel her emotions fully. The power of the Intensive for Helena was that it gave her numerous opportunities to reconnect to her body (through her emotions). In doing so, she was able to fully acknowledge and feel her true emotions as they were, not as how she wanted them to be. By doing this, her emotions could then get unfrozen, thus unstuck – and come to a normal end. In other words, she could take actions not previously thought possible (like saying things to her father and stepmother). Helena, by being more honest emotionally, allowed the full and painful truths to really “land” (meaning she felt her feelings), and gained emotional closure.
In Helena’s case, to survive, she had shut down her truth, so she was like a walking robot in many ways. She felt she was dead inside – nothing felt truly interesting or generated real passion or joy. Opening Helena back up to her life meant that she had to “wake up” to years of suppressed pain. Helena was fortunate that she had not forgotten her past to any real degree. She was just expending enormous energy to keep all the “bad” feelings away from her full awareness. By going back and healing her “unfinished business”, Helena was free to be more fully in the present, as her main commitment was no longer to NOT FEELING BAD. By expanding her tolerance for emotional discomfort, she could take more risks in her life, such as telling her parents she was moving, holding boundaries, having painfully real conversations with her father, and ultimately, moving away.
You, Too, Can Begin to Believe in Your Own Value And Stop Emotional Overeating
If you feel plagued with low self-esteem, value, confidence and/or self-hatred, caused by chronic feelings of shame, guilt, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger, you too can find your way back to a healthy sense of self worth. If you use food to self-sooth, medicate, or distract yourself from emotional self awareness, you too can learn to become emotionally tolerant, responsible, and flexible. You too can learn to take life on life’s terms, and not surrender to overeating and low self-esteem as a way of life.
If you are ready to stop emotional eating and begin your journey towards emotional mastery, please feel free to call or email to see if the Syrona Intensive could be right for you.
How Do I Get Started?
It’s easy. Just call (407) 542-0035. We are likely to be in session so please leave us a message. We will call you back and talk with you to decide if a Syrona Intensive is right for you.
If you prefer to email, contact us at:
Dr. Kelly: email@example.com
Dr. Mruz: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading!
* Please Note: Clients who come to a Syrona Intensive are prepared and ready for the emotionally-focused nature of the process. It is rare that we work with clients who are not, or have not been in therapy. The Syrona Intensives are designed to be an adjunct to ongoing therapy, not a stand alone experience.