Contributor: Travis Stewart, LPC, MATS, Owner of Recovery Coach
Part of having an eating disorder is feeling bombarded with intrusive thoughts that result in overwhelming physical or emotional sensations.
It can look something like this:
|I can’t eat that||Anxiety/tension||Restriction|
|I must eat that!||Excitement/adrenaline||Binge|
|I can’t believe I ate that!||Fear/fullness/discomfort||Purge|
|I’m getting fat||Anxiety/restlessness||Exercise|
|No one understands||Fear/sadness/depression||Isolation|
During the Holiday season these thoughts can be even more frequent, intense and frustrating. The unique situations, the presence of family members and the unusual amount of food available all combine to create more distressing thoughts:
|Everyone will be watching|
|It’s all “bad” food||Fear/discomfort/fullness||Restriction|
|I’ve eaten too much candy||Regret/guilt/fullness||Purge/restriction|
|I won’t fit in my clothes||Guilt/shame/feeling “gross”||Restriction|
|I can’t follow my routine||Irritation/fear/restlessness||Avoidance/Anger|
When these thoughts and sensations occur you can end up feeling “stuck” in situations and feeling like you have no way out. Your brain starts responding to these anxiety producing thoughts and sends “alert” messages to your body that are translated into physically uncomfortable sensations and strong urges to use eating disorder behaviors.
Some of these thoughts are based in real-life situations and other thoughts are merely perceptions. It may be true that family members are watching you eat more closely out of their concern for you and in response to their own anxiety.
Perceived Thoughts Translating into Anxiety
This can ramp up your fears and make you intensely uncomfortable. On the other hand, your family may be going on about their own business and yet you have the perception that they are watching you. Either way, what you perceive translates into anxiety.
So how do you cope with these anxious thoughts and unique circumstances that you may face during the holiday season? You’ve got to start by recognizing what is happening in your brain when you have these types of thoughts.
First, know that thoughts WILL come. It is almost impossible to stop a thought from entering your head.
Consider the Sesame Street character Elmo.
As soon as you read the name Elmo you likely had an image of the lovable furry red puppet with the adorable voice. You didn’t choose to think of him – an external trigger (reading his name) prompted a thought in your head.
While you can’t do much to stop a thought you CAN exercise some level of choice about what you do with that thought. You can continue to focus on thoughts of Elmo or you can shift your attention to something else of your choice.
The more your attention is on things like calories, how your clothes fit, or other eating disorder concerns, the more you will experience anxiety, fear and urges to act on behaviors. Shifting your attention is a skill that it is important to learn in the process of recovery.
What Are Thoughts?
Thoughts appear to originate in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and are simply mental activity expressed in images, ideas, opinions, etc. Unless we act on thoughts they have very little power or influence (of course there are some exceptions such as trauma flashbacks, hallucinations, etc.).
Of course, due to repeated patterns, traumatic experiences, or other reasons, thoughts that we interpret as threatening trigger the amygdala and insula to react with fight or flight instructions.
This part of the brain sends signals to our body which we experience as physical and emotional sensations such as:
- Urges to use eating disorder behaviors
These sensations are what give the thought energy and make you feel overwhelmed.
Increasing Awareness of Your Thoughts
The first step in learning to shift your attention away from distressing thoughts is to name them for what they are. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has some great tools to help achieve this. One that is very helpful is the phrase, “I’m aware that I am having the thought… and I notice that this thought is creating in me the sensations of …”
By labeling the thought and identifying how it affects you, you can create some distance between you and the thought. Imagine pulling the thought out of your head, holding it in your hand and examining it from a more objective perspective. It’s amazing how this simple act can reduce anxiety!
It’s Not Me. It’s Just My Brain!
The second step in shifting attention is recognizing that what you are experiencing is simply a result of what is happening in your brain. You are not really in danger! Your brain may be telling you otherwise but, unless you are being physically threatened or are standing on the edge of a cliff, there is very little real danger.
Your brain is reacting to patterns and beliefs that are not genuinely threatening you. “It’s not me. It’s just my brain!” is a helpful way of thinking about this. This externalizing can again provide you with a greater sense of power and control over your actions.
Refocusing Your Attention
Finally, step three in shifting your attention comes with the skill of refocusing your attention. Psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding, co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, describes this skill as directing “your attention toward an activity or mental process that is wholesome and productive – even while the false and deceptive urges, thoughts, impulses, and sensations are still present and bothering you.”
This skill, which is closely related to the skill of mindfulness, will not only help you take your attention away from the distressing thought but, if practiced on a regular basis, will actually result in rewiring your brain to be less reactive to the thoughts.
Steps to Refocus
Consider this example: You are sitting at a holiday meal with your family and suddenly you have the uninvited thought “They are all watching me!” and your anxiety increases, pulse races and suddenly you want to get up from the table and run to the bathroom to purge. Let’s put the steps in action:
Step one: “I’m aware that I’m having the thought that “they are all watching me” and I’m experiencing increased anxiety, my heart is beating faster and I’m having the urge to go to the bathroom and purge.”
Step two: “It’s just my brain. I’m not in real danger. My brain is sending signals to my body that I create the feeling that I need to purge. In reality I don’t have to purge.”
Step three: “I’m going to refocus my attention on something else. Instead of thinking more about this I’m going to choose to ask some questions to my grandma about what it was like growing up on a farm.”
By focusing on your grandmother, a game you are playing as a family or practicing other healthy grounding skills you are refocusing your attention and changing your brain.
These steps, though fairly straightforward, are not easy to do and must be practiced, but if you do them repeatedly and consistently you will actually be participating in rewiring your brain—and making powerful steps in your recovery.
To learn more about this topic read the article Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain by Rebecca Gladding, MD at PsychologyToday.com.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What is your experience with becoming aware of your thoughts and refocusing your attention in relation to eating disorder recovery?
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 5th, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com