Seems like a theme in sessions of late, and in the weekly group I’m running right now, has been disordered eating as a multi-purpose problem-solving tool. Feel sad, bored, lonely, or scared? Experience success or failure that challenges your beliefs about yourself? Experiencing any discomfort in any realm of your life, be it professional, interpersonal or existential? Just do your food thing! Problem? Solved.
Well, except not exactly. But, when you’re in the throes of disordered eating patterns, that’s how life starts to look. The problem with this problem solving technique is… well, actually, there are several problems.
Problem number one: it works. In the short term. Most eating disordered behavior, be it restricting, binge eating, obsessive exercise or purging, does cause a short term change in your state. The behaviors are so addictive because they unleash a volley of neuro-chemicals that can temporarily shunt you out of whatever uncomfortable emotional state you’re in, as well as being sufficiently distracting and engrossing that the mind shifts off of whatever real-life pain you were experiencing. It’s important to acknowledge this: people would not do these “crazy” things if they weren’t effective. At least, in the short term. Understanding this can be the bridge to a kinder and more empathic stance towards yourself and the disordered eating patterns you’ve fallen into. You just want to feel better. That’s ok.
However, this leads us to problem number two: now you’re stuck. Because the behavior provides short term relief, you find yourself more and more consistently turning to disordered eating to manage problems. This cycle inadvertently teaches you that the only way to manage your problems is to do a disordered eating type thing, which keeps you from practicing, or attempting to practice, or even considering attempting to practice, a skill that won’t happen to also ruin your life while it is “helping” you.
Because problem number three: it doesn’t actually work. While the disordered eating may create a short term relief from discomfort, it doesn’t actually change anything. It doesn’t help you understand the root causes of your emotions. It doesn’t help you identify or change a destructive pattern in your own behavior or in a relationship. It certainly doesn’t increase your capacity to sit with discomfort without acting on it, recognizing that discomfort is a part of life, and as such, is transitory. Oh yeah, and while it was not solving all these problems, it was majorly messing with your health, thereby ensuring that you will be facing a whole bunch of discomfort that might otherwise be avoidable, in the form of obesity, fragile or broken osteoporotic bones, social isolation, financial problems or crumbling teeth.
So, what does work? In my experience, the first step is to watch your mind and body for telltale signs that you’re getting distressed about something. This might by churning thoughts or a racing heart, or, it may not be apparent until you find yourself swamped with an urge to do your eating thing. Sometimes, disordered eating urges emerge out of habit, but very often, they’re a sign that there’s something else going on.
Once again, mindfulness is at the heart of change. Without this practice of holding awareness (without judgement) so that you can catch yourself before you act on the urge and consider an alternative, you’re kind of screwed. To be blunt.
It’s like watching for light changes when you’re driving. It’s a lot easier to stop and avoid an accident when you catch the change to yellow than in the middle of the intersection when you realize you’ve run a red light.