Triggering Places

Triggering Places - photo by viktorija

For the past month, Daniel and I have been staying with my parents as we wait to close on our house. The last time I stayed here for an extended period of time was in 2012, just after Daniel and I had broken up, and I was writing my memoir. I was really struggling with depression then, and I look back on that whole period of time as very dark, intensely painful—and full of binge eating. I’m in a much better place emotionally now, but oddly enough, since being here I feel that slight pull to the dark side…to binge eat. It’s like I’m being triggered by the physical location, accessing memories of those binges and re-feeling lots of my old cravings.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I realize how common a feeling/phenomenon this is for me. There are some places where I just feel a little more unsteady, and others where my footing is solid. When I lived in Seattle, my lifestyle was, on the whole, very healthy and active. And maybe because of that, every time I’ve gone back to visit, I’ve felt strong and confident. On the other end of the spectrum, when I go back to Amherst, where I went to college and essentially ate my heart out for a few years, I feel the pull of my old favorite food spots, and all my old bad habits. It’s clearer to me now that my thoughts and even behavior can be affected by my memories and experiences of a particular place.

Have you experienced something similar or is this yet another of my neuroses?



18 thoughts on “Triggering Places

  1. Laurie

    I am the same way. And I still feel that pull at my mother’s house. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or comfort or what, but I open her cabinets and stare at the snacks she keeps like I’m an 8 year old. So if it’s a nerosis, I’m there too :)

  2. Marie

    Yes! Isn’t it funny how our brains & hearts snag us in that way??
    Susan Peirce Thompson, in her newly released book, Bright Line Eating, talks about this phenomenon of eating cues & emotions – how some people are sign-trackers (therefore more susceptible to addiction & triggers of place or habit) and how others are goal trackers (& not as susceptible). Reading her explanation of brain wiring totally makes sense.
    When I looked back at periods where I was prone to binge eating I could see how emotions led me to be out of control with my eating, or how specific places or routines caught me in a cycle of eating what I shouldn’t have or didn’t really want to. Susan’s program helps to eliminate the drain on willpower & instill automaticity with eating in order to remove the triggers that make one susceptible to bingeing or just being out of control with food.

  3. Kristen

    I feel that way when I’m with my family, and when I’m alone in an airport after a trip – even if it was a healthy, active trip. I think it’s the feeling of depression of returning to real life after escaping. With family, I think it’s almost like I revert back to a more vulnerable version of myself.

  4. Jamie | A Sassy Spoon

    Yes, I have! It’s incredible how much our memories become anchors for things. We associate a song with a person or experience, a place with an ex, or like you, food with…well, everything. What has helped me (and is still a constant work in progress) is mentally creating new, positive “anchors” with those things or places. Go to that place with loving friends, play the song during a fun road trip or go to your favorite food spot and share food so you don’t binge. It really is all mental and easier said than done but not impossible! Hang in there. Love how real you are. Xoxo

  5. Emily

    I definitely understand how you feel. When I am home visiting my parents and back in my childhood bedroom, lots of unwanted feelings rise to the surface. I have very strong associations with certain smells and tastes that make me feel strong, intense emotions.

  6. Joy

    I actually was just reading about this in an awesome book called The Whole Brain Child (I’m reading it as a parent, but realizing how much I need it, too!) It’s all about integrating our brains for mental health (left and right brain, “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain, and memory). I just read a chapter on memory, about how when neurons fire at the same time, they link together. So, if you always drove down a certain street to get to your favorite doughnut shop, your brain is firing neurons about the street and about the anticipation of the doughnut at the same time. Your brain ends up linking those neurons together, so that next time you drive down the street, you anticipate a doughnut, whether that was the plan or not. I guess it’s the science behind associations? I’ve definitely had these experiences, though!

  7. Julianne

    This is so true! I moved a lot as a military brat and a military wife so the thing that would trigger me would be chain restaurants. Before I had met friends or learned my way around a new town there was a friendly, familiar (food) place where I could feel ‘at home’ and knew just what to order to soothe me. It’s taken time and awareness to break the cycle and it’s not totally gone but it has decreased tremendously. Thank you for posting this and for your book.

  8. Belle

    I think what you’re describing is totally normal. I lose the plot (and anticipate losing control) around certain people. It especially happens for me when we have people stay with us, or when we travel. It’s like all my good learning and new habits go out the window. Then I get anxious and stressed in advance of having house guests, or going on a big trip. It’s something I need to work on too. Would love to hear more about how you manage to tackle this challenge… because you will succeed :-)

  9. Sharon

    For many years I struggled with feelings of hunger any time I entered my parent’s home. It was a place of comfort and comfort food. I am now 51 and lived a long time not in their home. I no longer get the intense urge to eat when I am there. Some of that may be due to my parent’s health problems so we have not had family events in their home that involves food. However, I so relate to that feeling of wanting to eat. Now I find in my life I really struggle wit “hunger” whenever we visit my in laws. That urge is so related to the stress of the visit and expectations surrounding the food at their house. I have struggled with my weight most of my life. For years when we would visit my in laws my mother-in-law would sit large plates for the men and me, and then small plates for herself and daughter. Obviously that practice still sets me over the edge. Always will need to be mindful of foods I eat and the settings I am in. Have enjoyed reading about your journey for several years now.

  10. Alicia

    I am exactly the same. I always find myself secret eating when I am at my parents’ house. It drives me crazy. I love my parents very much, but I constantly feel judged for my food choices and as a life long fat girl, there is a lot of focus on whether or not I am losing weight.

  11. Salena

    I completely agree with this, and absolutely love you for always speaking what I can’t always pull from my brain. I also think maybe assessing the situation a step further would help though. Right now (I THINK!) you’re in another period of uncertainty with closing on the new house, not knowing what lies ahead as first time home buyers, getting married, etc. I know I always get feelings of binge eating when things seem way out of my control. Perhaps it’s not your parents’ place as much as it is the state you’re in when you’re there for extended periods of time (break up, new house, etc).


  12. Tam

    For me it’s people and specific foods. For example, when I’m at a family gathering and there are chips and French Onion dip, I can very easily fall into mindlessly overeating them. It’s context — that was a commonplace food growing up, but I rarely have it at home — and also low grade stress of being with them. I love my family dearly, but I’ve learned that the dynamics of being together can lead to some mild anxiety. Interesting topic!

  13. Jen Kessler

    This is definitely the case for me too! Familiar feelings lead to familiar patterns. I have been burning the candle at both ends lately which seems to have translated into a license to eat whatever I want while also cutting out exercise. This is exactly how I got overweight in the first place. I need to make some changes so that I don’t end back up where I started.

  14. Brian

    I totally understand what you are talking about. My childhood wasn’t the greatest. I didn’t have a supportive environment at home and I got bullied at school, so I turned to food for comfort. The struggle with using food as comfort lasted until my mid 30’s after my divorce, but I digress. Whenever I visit my mom and go home I get a bit depressed and feel like eating again.

  15. Maylinn

    Yes! This always happens to me when I’m visiting my mom’s house, which is circa every 2-3 months.
    And she has even moved 2-3 times after I moved out 10 years ago, so I guess it is so much the place, but just being back in my hometown and in my mothers house… very interesting – and also quite annoying…

  16. Cassie Schelldorf

    YES. I lost of all of my weight living in Florida, after college. I grew up and mainly battled my weight as a child in Connecticut. Four years ago, I moved to Boston. Even though it’s not the same, I associate Boston with CT and my biggest fear moving here was gaining the weight back. I’ve gained 10 lbs (then lost it) (then gained it after a recent break up) and working on losing it again. I only have one or two friends from my childhood that I’m still friends with, and it was a tough adjustment at first. We’re still working on it. Last year, I was pigging out on candy at the movies with my oldest friend (like we used to) and I had this moment of realization – I’m not that girl anymore, and I don’t do these things anymore. I got a handle on it real quick. It’s been an adjustment (even after four years). At home, in Florida, all of my friends are healthy/runners/know to not even ask me if I want a cocktail/treat/etc. Here, having to meet new friends, it’s all “Let’s go out to eat/get a drink”. Oy vey! I’m working on it, but being in New England is most definitely a trigger!

  17. Emma

    Oh absolutely! As soon as I go to my aunt’s house or the airport I am just constantly “hungry”-she has always served snacks even while prepping dinner, while somehow at the airport I’ve developed a weird thing about eating like I won’t have another chance for days.

    P.S. I finalllllly read your memoir-thank you for sharing so much of yourself. While I haven’t struggled to the extent you have, my default coping strategy if I’m not paying attention is emotional eating-and never health foods, of course! Reading your book was difficult and comforting and helpful all at the same time.


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