In today's post I wanted to talk about how I use the "Identify, Challenge, REPEAT" method to help me face my fear foods, and overcome disordered behaviours in recovery. This is something I'm sure many of you will be familiar with as I believe it is commonly used in CBT therapies such as my own, and I have seen lots of recovery accounts share their experience with the technique too. This said, I still thought it might be useful to discuss the ways in which it's supported me, and how I've tailored it to fit my individual recovery journey, because as we know, everyone's path is unique. If you've tried to use this method before and found it ineffective, maybe give this a read, as different perspectives can connect differently with each of us.
The first step to tackling an ED thought or behaviour, is to identify those which are disordered. The way I do this is to ask myself "If I did not engage in this activity, would I feel anxious?", and if the answer is "Yes", I know I must then challenge it.
It is also important for us to identify our fear foods, and I do this through creating a fear food hierarchy. I rank the foods I'm scared of based on how much anxiety the thought of consuming them brings, as well as how intense my desire to avoid them has been, and the longevity of this. For me this wasn't too troublesome a process as I know myself what I'm scared of, but my therapist also encouraged me to look beyond the obvious ones, and consider the foods that I may be able to tolerate if they're given to me, but that I would choose to leave out given the choice. For example, my mum may use oil to cook with, and whilst I am eating what she makes me during recovery, oil is still a fear of mine as if I were to replicate her recipe, I would opt to leave it out. These things are just as key to pick up on, as I am not recovering just to be able to be okay when I'm at home with my family, I'm recovering to live a full life.
The second step to tackling an ED thought or behaviour is of course to challenge them, and we do this using opposite actions. For example, if your ED is telling you you need to go to the gym, then you challenge this by not doing. "Well of course", you might be thinking, "but it's not that easy". I know, oh boy I know, but this is where we can use our distractions to try to reduce the anxiety as much as possible, and accept that unfortunately, it's also the part whereby we have to feel the fear and do it anyway, because nobody said recovery was easy, and if it is, then the chances are we're not doing it right.
Maybe it would help to see what this looks like for me?
So... I've decided I'm not going to work out, and the first thing I need to do is put some measures in place to confirm to myself and to tell my ED that this is what's happening, and no matter what abuse it hurls at me, nothing's going to change that. I do this by putting my trainers or sports clothes away and out of sight, and then depending on the circumstances, I will either tell my girlfriend or my parents that I'm categorically not working out today, or if this isn't an option, I can write it down in my journal to keep myself accountable. Then I need to find something else to occupy my mind and maybe my body depending on whether I'm experiencing any physical effects of anxiety. Maybe I'll get on with some work, tidy my room, play a game, watch TV, read or do a puzzle, whatever I feel like really. I find it can be helpful to have a list of 'go to distractions' so that this decision doesn't require too much energy. Sometimes this will be all I need, and after a while I'll be able to carry on with my day, relived of the ED thoughts, and proud that I completed my challenge. Other days, this is not the case, and so I just have to force myself to sit with the bad feelings and do my best to block them out whilst I wait for them to pass. This is the horrible part, but we have to do it in order to get to a point whereby it's easier, and eventually to a place where we're free of the thoughts all together. One thing I do know though, is that I can't let myself compensate for this challenge through the likes of restriction, as this will undermine everything I've done. It will simply create new ED rules meaning that the next time I come to face it, I will only feel able to do so if I engage in the same compensation, and so I am simply transferring one behaviour to another equally disordered one.
When it comes to facing fear foods, I use my hierarchy to select my challenge, starting with those that I feel the least uncomfortable with. This enables me to determine what works for me and what coping mechanisms I can apply, meaning that by the time I come to face my bigger fears, I am better prepared to deal with the higher level anxieties they bring. I find it most beneficial to my full recovery to challenge my fear foods in different contexts. For example, most recently I have been challenging my fear of cheese, and so I have been trying to face it in as many scenarios and forms as the current lockdown situation allows me to.
- Different types of cheese (cream cheese, halloumi, feta, and mozzarella so far)
- Cheese in different dishes (e.g. in stews, pasta bakes, with crackers and salad)
- Cheese for different meals (I've included it in my lunches, snacks and dinners)
- Eating it alone and with other people
Normally, I would also challenge eating it at home, and out and about e.g. at a restaurant but this isn't currently possible.
I find this method means that I can be confident in my ability to eat my fear food wherever I am and whatever's going on around me. This is crucial, as I don't want to be nearly recovered but still have little rules in place, because that's only going to keep me trapped in my eating disorder, and keep the door open for it to sneak further and further back into my life. I want to be able to eat and enjoy these foods freely, and so just like with challenging the ED behaviours, this also means I can't allow myself to compensate whilst I'm challenging them. We must commit fully to these challenges and work through the unpleasant feelings this causes in order to move forward with our recovery and work towards getting the life we want and deserve.
The third step to tackling both ED thoughts and behaviours, and to facing fear foods is arguably the most important, and that is to REPEAT the challenge! This is because our anxiety response to these situations will only become lessened through exposure. We must show our body and brain over and over again that we can not engage in this disordered behaviour, or eat this food, and nothing bad will happen.
This methodology is similar to that used in the treatment for phobias. For example, If an individual had arachnophobia, they would work through an anxiety hierarchy and be repeatedly exposed to spiders until they eventually unlearnt the association between them and fear, as they'd realise spiders posed them no threat and caused no harm. In an ideal world this same theory would be directly applicable to challenging fear foods, however the difference in ED recovery, is that sometimes the things we're scared of will in fact be realised. By this I mean that whilst the principle applies to our irrational fears such as thinking we will instantly balloon up the second we eat a slice of cake for example, we will in fact have some of our fears such as weight gain confirmed. This can make recovery really tough, as watching your worst nightmares unfold is hardly very motivating, but there are things we can do to deal with this. As I said before, this is where we use our distractions, mantras, and lists of reasons we want to recover to help combat the ED thoughts. We can remind ourselves that weight gain is good - that it means our bodies will be healthier, our minds will be happier and our life will be fuller. Yes, these are all long term results and we still have to deal with the discomfort and mental torment it brings in the present, but we can feel the fear and do it anyway, knowing the life that waits on the other side.
As per, I have gone off on a bit of a tangent, but the focus here is on the necessity of repeating our challenges. As humans our anxiety naturally peaks but is then certain to fall, and whilst we can know all the facts on how our hormones and different neurotransmitters cause this, it can be a case of having to see it to believe it. The first time you start to introduce more fear foods or stop engaging in compensatory behaviours and notice a weight gain or a change in your appearance, it will be terrifying. This is what causes us to run back to our ED's and not fully commit to recovery. Therefore, the only real solution, is to push through this and find out for ourselves that it gets easier. If being underweight is a feature of your ED then we have to remember that by fuelling our bodies and nourishing them as they require, our brains functioning will improve and our thought processes will become less muddled. In addition to this, the further away we move from our eating disorders, the more in reach our recovered life will seem, and the more interests we will have out in the real world, that we will care more about than pleasing our ED voice.
Repetition is essential to ensuring this process can occur though, as we can't afford to challenge a fear once and claim we're cured. If you truly believe this then you're only fooling yourself... A phobia you have been reinforcing through avoidance for months or years is not going to be reversed that quickly. We must continually repeat challenges and do this in the different contexts I described earlier in order to truly overcome the fear. Further to this, we must keep checking in on behaviours or foods we have previously challenged, to ensure they're not becoming fears again.
So to summarise...
- Create a hierarchy of your fear foods, and use the "Will not engaging in this activity cause me anxiety?" method to identify your disordered behaviours.
- Challenge your fear foods in different contexts, and use your distractions, mantras, and goals to distract from the discomfort of doing both this and when challenging disordered behaviours.
- DO NOT compensate for your challenges
- REPEAT these challenges to unlearn the fear association (it will get easier)
I hope this post can help someone out there overcome a fear food or unlearn a disordered behaviour!
If you have any more tips or thoughts on the matter please share them below or send me them over on Instagram @the_recovery_bean
More from me soon,
Mais// The Recovery Bean <3