How long have you been experiencing your eating disorder? Does it feel impossible to get unstuck from eating disorder behaviors? We know from research that, for many people, recovering from an eating disorder can take years.
People in my office often avoid discussing the details of what gets them to crave, binge, or restrict foods. Those experiences feel incredibly shameful to them. They’re hard to share. Who wants to dwell on them? The same goes for having negative thoughts about one’s body. I appreciate someone who wants to run from hating his or her body.
How pausing can help you get unstuck from eating disorder behaviors
Next time you crave a food, find yourself bingeing or consider starting a new diet, pause. Rather than avoid the craving, say hello to it. Wonder what is making it loud right now. This is leaning into the craving instead of ignoring it. Your brain may flood with judgments and bad body thoughts.
In order to get unstuck, it’s important to retrain your brain for kindness rather than judgment.
A life filled with dieting, restricting, bingeing, and negative body image leads to harsh self-talk. This type of brain messaging keeps you stuck. Instead of telling your brain a bunch of “shoulds”, I want you to concentrate on two words: “nonjudgmental curiosity”.
Curious and nonjudgmental
Considering your food decisions in a caring spirit of inquiry opens up the door to mend and dig deeper. It helps you start to rewire your brain to allow food to fuel you, and not over-occupy your brain’s space. Imagine not thinking about food, exercise, or your body every second! This is how this process begins to evolve.
Your brain probably has spent a long time thinking negatively about your body and how you eat. So I encourage you to be patient with yourself. This never happens overnight.
Instead, you’ll find yourself moving forward when you can connect the dots from many eating disorder slips. These experiences strung together will paint a picture of what you need to fix in the recovery process.
The next time you see yourself wanting to engage in eating disorder behaviors, start collecting data. Below, you will see some common eating disorder behaviors and relevant questions to ask. Practice using nonjudgmental curiosity to lean into the behavior cravings.
If you don’t have answers at first, that’s okay. I think that’s the typical experience. Just keep asking. The more you ask, the more your brain will open up to the possibilities. Have a pen and paper (or iPhone) nearby to collect this information. As a scientist, this data will help you get a bigger picture of what you need to do to change these unhealthy behaviors.
Getting unstuck from the eating disorder behavior- the binge
Every person I’ve worked with has wanted to stop bingeing. If only binges magically went away!
Every binge begins with not eating enough earlier.
I’ve seen hundreds of folks with eating disorders constructively work through binge behaviors by planning and following through with eating enough at a meal to have hunger satisfied. This doesn’t prevent all binges. Yet it does make the behaviors less intense and more manageable.
The bingeing experiences are saturated with shame, so I appreciate wanting to run away from them. Avoiding the details of a binge may keep you from understanding how to heal from them. Next time you experience a binge, lean into the details. Here, you will find data that will help you come to a new hypothesis.
Use this method to approach the behaviors by considering:
- What time of day did my binge occur? Is this a typical time-frame for my binges?
- How much did I eat, if anything, earlier that day? Was it actually enough? Was I dieting or restricting, and feeling good about how little I was eating?
- Did the binge start with a certain food? How did I label that food? Could all-or-nothing thinking be triggering my brain to start the binge sequence?
- What was I feeling right before the binge started? And what happened in my life right before that?
If you find yourself restricting certain foods or the amount you eat, as with bingeing, consider the details. They’ll help you find ways to heal. Unlike bingeing, there’s no tangible proof of this restricting behavior, so it can be easier to avoid acknowledging its existence at the moment.
Restricting is a craving, just like any other: it has meaning and is a window to your needs.
Instead of denying or finding distractions in the moments of restricting, experiment with pausing and noticing. Ask yourself these questions:
- Which foods do I want to avoid? How do I label those foods? Could all-or-nothing thinking be triggering my brain to start the craving to restrict?
- What was I doing right before I started wanting to restrict? How was I experiencing my body? What was I feeling?
- How do I want to experience my body? How do I want to feel? What other health promoting experiences help me accomplish this?
Negative Body Thoughts
Ruminating on negative body image only makes that part of the brain stronger. We want to help the healthy part of your brain expand and to provide the muscle to experience body positivity. Why? Walking around in your earth-suit – and feeling okay about it – can help you experience more joy, relationships, and life! When you hear those bad body thoughts, lean in.
- Is there something about this moment that’s making me distracted with these thoughts? Am I nervous, anxious, scared, sad, happy, lonely, or bored?
- Who am I around when I hear these negative body comments in my head? Am I feeling inferior? Stupid? Unpopular? Ignored?
- Elizabeth Scott from The Body Positive, teaches people to ask themselves, “If this wasn’t about my body, what would it be about?”
Getting unstuck from other eating disorder behaviors
I appreciate that eating disorder behaviors can include more than just bingeing, restricting, and bad body thoughts. Use these questions with any behaviors you may have that are connected to your eating disorder. Bring them to your treatment team, and together, you can map out what’s going on that’s keeping you stuck. Their perspective may help you connect the dots for ideas to move more into recovery.
I encourage you to be patient as you experiment with these questions. Most people who use these tools will not have answers right away. As time goes on, the part of the brain with the answers will get stronger. And so will you.
The next time you crave restricting, bingeing, or putting your body down, say “hello” to it. Wonder why it is there. Be curious, and practice leaving your judgments for another time (if ever!). Sifting through what bubbles to the surface, you’ll find your solutions.