We have so many choices of foods, beverages and substances that we can eat, drink and consume. How do you decide what you put into your body, and is it making you happy? Or do you wish you ate/drank/used substances differently?

As a psychotherapist, I don’t specialize in eating disorders, nor am I certified in substance abuse counseling. But, for over twenty years, I have helped many clients with food, alcohol and drug-related issues. What can I say about this very big subject in a few words? Let me share with you some food/alcohol/drug-related habits that can get in your way and what you can do about them.

Do you consume food/alcohol/drugs…

To numb yourself: Is there something that you don’t want to feel? Are you sad, tired, lonely? Are you socially anxious at bars/parties/events? Would you rather feel numb (a temporary fix) or would you prefer to go to the source of those difficult feelings and get to the core of the problem?

As a reward: When I was a kid, whenever something bad happened, my Mom gave me ice cream. My little brain set up the pattern: “ice cream = reward”. To this day, that pattern persists, so it’s not surprising that I have a hard time resisting: I could (almost) say that I have a mild “addiction” to ice cream. As a result, I rarely buy it, because when I do, I scarf it down so fast that I barely enjoy it. Old habits aren’t easily broken!

To escape from feeling bad: For many of us, food, alcohol and drugs are an escape…from boredom, an unhappy relationship, a job we hate, or family drama. We don’t want to feel these feelings, so, we avoid them with food, alcohol, prescription or club/party drugs. Years’ ago, I noticed that I’d go to the refrigerator, throw open the door and say, “Make me feel better!” Now when I do that, I laugh…and isn’t that a lot of responsibility to give to a meal, drink or pill?

As a substitute for happiness:  When I’ve had a long, hard day, there’s a part of me that says, “Let’s have a drink; I deserve it.” I’ve worked hard and now I want a reward. Before I became a therapist, I had a job I didn’t like, and every night when I came home, I’d have a drink to reward myself for making it through another day. Then, after a while, one drink wasn’t enough, so I’d have a second one. The desire for that second drink started to bother me. Eventually, I saw what I was doing and quit that awful job. With my next job, I didn’t “need” to drink, but I made a note of that desire and now, when I want a drink at the end of the day, I sometimes won’t have one: I’ll do something else enjoyable instead.

To nourish yourself: Are you in touch with what makes your body feel good? Do you actually notice how what you put in your mouth affects you? Or are you like so many of us, who when we drink/eat/indulge in too much of a “good” thing, believe that feeling shitty/sleepy/hungover is just a necessary part of life?

It’s not.

I’m no dietary guru or nutrition expert, I’m a psychotherapist who tries to practice what I preach and notice when I’m indulging in – or tempted to indulge in – a not-so-helpful habit. The specific form of the habit isn’t what’s important, what matters is if you’re using food, alcohol or drugs in ways that make you happier and healthier…or not.

If not, ask yourself: “Why am I putting this in my body? What do I hope to get from it?”

This isn’t about beating yourself up: it’s about noticing why you do the things you do so that – if you want to – you can choose differently.

And please don’t judge yourself for periodically indulging in “bad” habits: we all do, so be kind to yourself. If you want to change what you’re putting in your mouth, do it gradually and with self-encouragement: you’re much more likely to be successful that way.