How to Overcome Fear Foods in Eating Disorder Recovery
How can I overcome fear foods? If this is a question you have, you are in the right place because in this post, I’ll be giving you practical tips to challenge your fear foods! When it comes to fear, one of the most prominent lessons I’ve learned on my own journey is that you cannot overcome fear by thinking about how you’re going to overcome the fear. The key to overcoming fear of ANY kind, whether that be in eating disorder recovery or doing anything else that scares you in life, is to take ACTION. But this is of course a catch-22, because taking action is the very thing you fear! So what can you do to make taking action just a little less scary?
Right now, I’m going to take action and get into this post! After reading, you’ll walk away with a comprehensive understanding of the science behind fear along with practical tips and tools to overcome your fear foods for GOOD. It is 100% possible to enjoy all foods without guilt, so keep on reading to learn how!
In order to understand fear foods and how we can overcome them, we must first understand fear. Fear is a primal emotion that is designed to protect us from threats. When we perceive danger, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered, and reacts using our flight-fight-freeze response. This response starts in the amygdala, a small part of your brain located in the brain stem. The human brain as we know it evolved from the brain stem and in fact, some animals such as reptiles, only have a brain stem! For this reason, our brain stem is often referred to as the reptilian brain.
Our reptilian brain is responsible for anything that has to do with survival. Think thoughts about food, safety, sex - that’s all your brain stem! When your survival brain feels threatened, it reacts without consulting the cerebral cortex (also known as the “logical” part of your brain). Staying alive is the main goal of our biological nature and doesn’t require executive functioning, so any kind of logical thinking is overridden if your safety is put at risk. When your brain perceives danger, it will want you to get the hell out of the danger zone: there’s no time for messing around and consulting the rational brain first!
The Brain and Fear Foods
But what does all this science have to do with eating disorders and fear foods? When you are malnourished, your survival brain perceives a food famine and thinks you need to migrate to a place where there is enough food. I explain this migration theory in full detail in my 7-part Adapted to Flee Famine Hypothesis series, so I recommend going back and reading all of those posts to learn everything you need to know about the biology of anorexia!
Why the AFFH is so relevant when it comes to understanding fear, is that for a migrating mammal, stopping for food would lessen the chances of making it to the abundant lands. So, when you get mad at people who try to make you eat, it totally makes sense from a biological perspective. It’s the same reason why you feel compelled to compare and why it often feels rewarding when other people eat more than you, as your primal brain simply considers this a heightened opportunity to reach an abundance of food before them.
Of course, rationally you know there is no food famine…but your brain doesn’t! There is no time to waste when it comes to survival. When you’re engaging in eating disorder behaviors, your amygdala is constantly eliciting a fear response and you are constantly activating your sympathetic nervous system. This constant state of anxiety also helps explain why you may not feel physically hungry, which can make eating feel all that more “wrong”! When you are in your sympathetic nervous system, hunger cues are shut off, as they would act as a distraction in a situation of real danger. I mean, if you were faced by a tiger in the wild, all of your body’s energy would go into making sure you run away from that tiger as fast as you can!
You’re not actually afraid of the food
To go further with this tiger example, I believe it acts as a great metaphor in illustrating that you’re not actually afraid of the food. If you see that tiger, you will probably feel fear…but are you actually afraid of the tiger? You may think you are, but in reality, what you are most likely afraid of is the unpredictability of what the tiger may do to you. It’s the uncertainty that triggers the fear response, not the tiger itself. Just think about it this way: as soon as you’re in a zoo and that tiger is behind glass or in a cage, you’re not afraid anymore!
The same goes for fear foods. We often think we’re afraid of the food itself, but it isn’t the cupcake or the brownie we’re afraid of. Rationally, we know it’s not going to attack us! What we are really afraid of is the uncertainty around the act of eating that cupcake or that brownie or whatever else it is your eating disorder brain tells you is off limits. We’re afraid of change and what can happen if we do something different. And this is what can make it especially difficult for autistic individuals to recover from an eating disorder when they aren’t given the proper guidance or tools, because as any autistic person knows, we cling to our routine for the very reason of avoiding change!
Another reason why the idea of eating certain foods can bring up fear, is because maybe you’re afraid that once you do eat a specific food, you will open the floodgates to bingeing. In turn, this brings up another fear, which is the fear that you will never stop eating and just gain weight forever.
Understanding how our biology of fear affects our thoughts about food can be very helpful in eating disorder recovery because it allows us to take the power away from the fear food itself and thus, opens the opportunity to finally challenge the fear. Just like in the tiger example, the fear isn’t caused by the animal or object itself, but rather the uncertainty AROUND the object.
Building Certainty around Fear Foods
To overcome fear foods, just like overcoming a fear of tigers, you need to take away that uncertainty. You need to build a safety net. In this case, that’s a sense of certainty around fear foods. So, how do you do that? You take away any and every unpredictable aspect that could potentially surround the situation in which you tackle a fear food.
When I was very ill, I remember I would always say, “tomorrow, I'll eat a brownie” or “tomorrow, I’ll eat a proper meal” but then it was the end of tomorrow and I hadn’t done it, just because I hadn’t set myself up for success. When you are surviving with an eating disorder, you are enslaved to rigid rituals and routines that may again, be rooted in autism. But whether you’re autistic or not, breaking the eating disorder specific routines is absolutely essential if you want to achieve full recovery! As hard as it is, you need to make a conscious effort to change, and doing so in a way that’s not overwhelming is exactly what I do with clients during 1:1 Coaching and also what I guide you through in my Extreme Hunger Course.
One specific method I often use in coaching is the same method Olympic Athletes use before they win: visualization. In order break your disordered routines and conquer your fears, you need to get crystal clear on the situation in which you will be doing so, and visualization helps you achieve this. What Olympic athletes do, is they literally IMAGINE themselves crossing the finish line before even doing so in real life. So, when they ACTUALLY have to do it, it's nothing new!
The reason why our “safe foods” feel safe, is because our brain knows the outcome of eating them. We have eaten them so many times before, that there are no longer elements of uncertainty surrounding those foods. When eating a fear food for the first time, it triggers the fight-flight-freeze response because it’s different and uncertain and you’ve never done it before. The good news is that you can “trick” your brain into thinking it’s NOT the first time…and you do this through visualization.
Several studies have been conducted to explore what happens in the brain when someone is visualizing a certain experience vs actually doing it. With advanced brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (also known as MRI), scientists have found that when you visualize something, the same parts of the brain activate as when you are actually doing the thing. This means that intentional visualization has virtually the same effect on the neural pathways in your brain as if you were really engaging in the activity in reality! How COOL is that?
When it comes to your visualization, it’s important to engage all the senses such as where you will be, what it will smell like, what sounds may be present, and anything else you think will be involved during the conquering of a specific fear food. It’s super important to get as clear as possible on every detail when you are imagining this, because it means more neural pathways will be activated, and thus, your brain will be more familiar with the experience when you actually take action and eat the food!
You can use the following questions as a guide to help gain utmost clarity during your visualization:
Where will I be?
Who will I be with?
What will I be wearing?
What time will it be?
Where will I buy the food?
What will the food be?
What does it taste like?
Along with conquering the fear food beforehand through this visualization exercise, another practical tip I want to give you when it comes to reducing anxiety around eating is to take slow, deep breaths. When you take slow, deep breaths right before you face a fear food, you are switching out of your sympathetic nervous system and into your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as rest and digest mode. Just as the name suggests, being in rest and digest mode allows you to feel more restful and at peace when conquering the fear food, and it also helps you avoid painful digestive issues that often come with recovery!
I’ve worked with so many individuals that have applied these methods to their life, and time and time again, they’ve overcome not only their fears, but they have made massive progress on their journey to full recovery! As I always say, FULL recovery is 100% possible for ANYONE, but you must be FULLY committed to putting in the work. No one can recover for you, but I can be there to listen, understand, and guide you on your journey to freedom. I have been where you are now, and I do the work I do today to help you get to the other side. If you are interested in learning more about working with me, check out my 1:1 Coaching page and Extreme Hunger Course! There is a light at the end of the tunnel, now go and follow it!
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