All my life, whenever I would experience a loss, I would look to food as a remedy for the intense feelings that I was having. As a child, I could tear through an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting without any negative physical effects. As an adult, I preferred low-quality, non-nutritive items like donuts and fast food. When I was feeling empty, lost, or incomplete, it was a natural instinct to head to the nearest drive-through and get myself some happy. I would get such a “high” from the hunt and consumption but would quickly return to feeling the pain caused by loss.
Alcohol consumption is another way to try and feel better following a loss. It has become very popular, but can also be problematic. The social norm of “Happy Hour” is a perfect example. For three hours, you can relax with some friends, enjoy a drink (or many) and try and forget about the “awful day” you just had. But once the effects of the alcohol have worn off, not only is your emotional pain still present, but you may also experience remorse and physical discomfort (i.e., a hangover). In excess, using alcohol as a means of coping can lead to disease, poor decisions, and harm to others, only compounding the original source of grief.
Shopping is another common way that people cope with their grief. So common, in fact, that the term “retail therapy” was coined in the 1980s to define this behavior. As grievers, we often strive for distraction from the pain of the loss and use shopping as a way to fill a void that we are feeling. Buying new clothes may fill a void in our closet, but it does little to counteract the emptiness you may be feeling inside your heart.
The Grief Recovery Method® refers to actions such as these as STERBs: Short-Term Energy-Relieving Behaviors. According to the Grief Recovery Handbook, a “STERB is any action, activity, or behavior in which we participate, that creates the ‘illusion’ that we’re dealing with the emotions caused by the events and interactions that affect our lives.” Although you may not be familiar with this acronym, there is no doubt that you have heard about, or participated in, the few actions that I mentioned above.
Modern marketing techniques are designed with STERBs in mind, and seem to rely on them for businesses to remain successful in the market. For example, in one day, I counted four fast-food marketing campaigns that equated food with instant happiness in an obvious, direct way. As consumers, we are not only stuffing our faces but also our feelings.
So, the next time you’re heading to the drive-through, bar, or shopping mall, take a moment to honestly consider what feelings you may be avoiding or looking to bury. And then feel them.
If you’re coping with the loss of a loved one, read our articles on grief and grieving.
This article was written for the eFuneral Resource Center by Laura Sefcik, MPH, MSW, LISW, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist.® For many more helpful articles and a series of questions and answers, please visit the Grief Recovery Method®Guidance Center at Tributes.com. Those thinking about end-of-life should visit eFuneral.com for help researching, planning, and arranging a wide variety of funeral-related services.
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