The fear is real in eating disorder recovery, but what if we can turn that fear into excitement?
With an eating disorder, we develop very intense and real fear responses whenever we try to eat and rest more or change other hard wired disordered behaviours that have developed over the course of the illness.
Although we know on a higher brain level that these fear reactions are irrational, when they strike, they are no different at a baseline, physiological level to the fear reaction that a person (or animal) gets when their life is genuinely at risk. This is evolution at its finest – keeping survival a priority…. only it has gone slightly awry in those with eating disorders!
Anyone with an eating disorder, can put their hand on their heart and say that when their brain perceives a ‘threat’ from being asked to eat more food, the reaction is one of flight or fight. The ability to think clearly and rationally evaporates, the heart starts to pound, there might be stomach tightness and sweating and it feels that the only thing possible is to do anything to rapidly flee from the situation or fight off the threat.
When trying to recover from an eating disorder and face more food daily, this basic animal fear response is the very reason why recovery is so hard and so many don’t progress with any real momentum in terms of getting better. It takes huge commitment and learning incredible skills to even start to override the fear in order to make progress in real recovery terms.
Perhaps though, I can offer up one technique that might just help….
What if I tell you that physiologically, excitement and anxiety or fear responses are actually the same in the body?
The only difference comes from what has caused the response and how we have conceptualised or interpreted it.
During a fear response, we release adrenaline and cortisol in an instant surge that causes us to be ready to take flight from a danger. The limbic system in our brain that evolved for our survival takes over and blocks most rational thought so that we get tunnel vision, with our focus solely on escaping the thing we are afraid of. The heart rate increases, we get jittery and sweaty…
And the exact same reaction occurs when we are excited…
If we are highly aroused and really excited, the brain and body are producing the same chemical reaction and response but this time we don’t feel scared, but we might feel pumped up and hyper with arousal!
This becomes clear when you consider animals in the wild…
Take the lion and the antelope. The antelope sees a lion approach, ready to attack. It goes into a fear response, ready to run for its life, forgetting anything other than survival… The lion on the other hand is not afraid but he is excited and chasing the antelope. His physiology is just the same though… his adrenaline is pumping along with cortisol to keep his heart beating faster, his brain only focused on the excitement of the chase and his muscles moving.
So, if fear or anxiety and excitement are so closely related in physiology, does that not beggar the question of whether we can develop skills to turn inappropriate fear reactions we encounter in eating disorder recovery into excitement at facing the eating disorder head on?
For me, I can recall a few occasions when I unknowingly did just that in my recovery last year. There were times that my anxiety was spiralling and I was attempting to run from it – wanting to use compulsive movement to ease it, while all my brain could focus on was also escaping unnecessary food intake. On these occasions, I managed to use strong inner frustration to flick the use of this intense reaction happening in my brain and body from being in flight mode to being in a positive and excited-attack mode.
Instead of trying to escape, I became pumped up and charged at recovery, using all the force I had. I grabbed the food that was terrorising me and used my tunnel vision to focus on excitement about attacking recovery, not escaping it.
And, as it turns out, this is not so ridiculous a notion. Researchers have demonstrated that it is easier for someone to turn high arousal in terms of fear into an alternative highly aroused state than it is to ‘calm down’.
This is called Anxiety Reappraisal – which is basically to, “Stay aroused and get excited!!’
Excitement and fear both stem from something unknown in the future – but fear triggers us to escape this unknown and excitement can move us to approach it.
Therefore, can you see fear in recovery in terms of a ‘threat’ or in terms of an exciting ‘opportunity’?
Instead of being afraid, anxious and scared in recovery, be excited and curious about the chance to approach recovery and face it head on!!
Tell yourself when you feel the heart starting to beat faster, the palms get a bit sweaty and the breath quicken that this is not fear, this is excitement. This is your body preparing you for attack and doing what it can to help you!
Next time you see that doughnut and want to run in terror, stay pumped up and use that adrenaline rush to approach and murder that doughnut and then bring on several more!!!