The temptation to resolve anxiety with comfort seeking
Some of the things we do for comfort are not so comforting after all.
Emotions motivate us to do something. This may involve taking some action that will alter a negative mood or reduce stress. Unlike fear, an emotion that immediately motivates you to take action to defend yourself, emotions such as anxiety or distress are accompanied by a lot of ambiguity as far as the direction you should take. Comfort seeking in all of its various forms is a plausible action.
However, under the guise of comforting yourself you may be misguided. Obvious examples of injudicious comfort seeking are when you tell yourself you’re stressed and need a drink or that you must have “comfort food” to calm your nerves. You may not be aware of erroneously seeking comfort if you bite your nails or engage in other compulsive habits. And you may not recognize a mistaken search for comfort when you are tempted to contact an ex-partner. Behaviors that seek reassurance from others, such as using an Instagram photo as a lure, may also represent a misguided effort to receive comfort.
Alcohol and substances help you evade looking at the issue that leads you to seek comfort. For the moment you may imagine you have found relief, but you have only embraced avoidance. Unfortunately, comfort foods are similar. Rather than endure anxiety, stress, or shame, comfort foods are used for temporary avoidance. As with using alcohol or substances, your mood may improve for the moment, but be worse later. In a recent study regarding the myth of comfort food, researchers found that significant improvements in mood resulted from consuming comfort foods, but no more than other foods or no food.1 They concluded that comfort food is credited for mood effects that would have occurred even in its absence. Moreover, improvement in mood occurred after three minutes regardless of whether people ate comfort food, other food, or no food.
Nail biting, picking, hair pulling, and other compulsive habits also provide momentary comfort and later humiliation. How soothing can something be if the end result is self-denigrating? But for the moment such behaviors serve a withdrawal function and may involve self-attack. Any of these habits help you to withdraw into yourself because they are a temporary refuge from the vague threats intrinsic to what you feel.
Among many other possibilities for seeking comfort is the inclination you might have to connect with an ex-partner. What do you expect at such times? Would an ex actually tell you how awesome you are and how much they miss you? Often, turning to an ex for comfort will only give you a dose of shame and a greater need for comfort. Some people require a few of these experiences in order to give it up as a potential comfort source. Similarly, if your self-esteem is vulnerable, seeking reassurance from a social media site may backfire. A great need for social connection can lead to relatively ineffective communication strategies that may ultimately make you feel more rejected.2 Even so, there’s no doubt that human connection is most comforting if you can lean on someone who is trustworthy and empathic.
We’ve erroneously learned in our culture that we should find ways to get rid of negative feelings rather than consider them. In addition, a prevailing belief has been that arousal due to anxiety or stress is harmful and that we should do anything possible to suppress or decrease it. Current research suggests that how we respond to stress determines whether or not it can hurt you. In a long-term study of 30,000 adults, researchers found that the perception that stress is harmful to your health is associated with poor health and mental health.3 Certainly, if you are distressed, and become even more distressed by that feeling, the emotion is magnified—it becomes even bigger or more distressing. In contrast, a healthy response to stress is recognizing that physical stress response symptoms are a sign that your body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.4
Taking interest in and accepting negative emotions, rather than suppressing them, is linked with better functioning and less defensive processing.5 Avoidance and withdrawal behaviors, as well as attacking oneself, are examples of defensive processing. Naturally, in some circumstances, suppressing your emotions may benefit you. But in everyday life, when you are inclined to suppress anxiety, longing, sadness, shame, or other negative emotions by seeking unhealthy methods of comfort, instead you may want to take a look at what you are feeling and what you can discover from it. After all, the purpose of an emotion is to make you care by making you feel something, as well as to motivate, energize, and organize your thoughts and actions.6 Thus, emotions present you with a tremendous opportunity for learning. Understandably, sometimes it’s just so hard to sit with them and listen to what they’re trying to tell you.
- Wagner, H., Ahlstrom, B., Redden, J., Vickers, Z., & Mann, T. (2014). The myth of comfort food. Health psychology, 33, 1552-1557.
- Clerkin, E., Smith, A, & Hames, J. (2013). The interpersonal effects of Facebook reassurance seeking. Journal of Affective Disorders, 151, 525-530.
- Keller, A.; Litzelman, K.; Wisk, L.E.; Maddox, T.; Cheng, E.R.; Cresswell, P.D.; & Witt, W.P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 5, 677-84.
- Jamieson JP, Nock MK, Mendes WB. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of experimental psychology, general,141, 417-22.
- Roth, G., Benita, M., Amrani, B. Asoulin, H. Moed, A., Bibi, U. (2014). Integration of negative emotional experience versus suppression: Addressing the question of adaptive functioning. Emotion, 14, 908-919.
- Tomkins, S. Affect Imagery Consciousness (1962/2008), New York: Springer.