We develop patterns of behavior early in life. We start associating certain events with certain behaviors. One such pattern is our behavior with food. Being fed by our parents when we were young may come to represent being cared for or being loved. On the other hand, not being fed when we were hungry may have produced a deep insecurity about whether there would be enough food in the future.
Food can also serve as a distraction. For instance, we may have been told at the doctor’s office that if we didn’t cry when we got a shot, we would be rewarded with a lollypop. Therefore, we focused on getting the lollypop instead of feeling the fear or pain of the needle. We effectively blocked the pain and focused on the reward, the sugar. Is it any wonder that later in life when we experience pain, emotional or physical, that we think a candy bar will make us feel better?
We may associate happy occasions, holidays, and celebrations with food. We then look to food to recapture the feelings of togetherness, love, and joy that we felt on those special occasions. We may have been told we can have dessert if we are good or if we eat everything on our plate. Thus, dessert became a reward, an acknowledgement of success. We trudge through a hard day at work knowing a reward awaits us at the end of the day.
We can also use food to procrastinate; to avoid some action or responsibility that needs to be taken care of or just to get through the mundane, boring tasks of daily life. We may even recognize that food has become our best friend and our source of comfort. But inside, we feel like we have an empty hole inside us, and no amount of food seems to make us feel whole and complete.
We pick up so many associations between food and behavior early in life. Some are life enhancing, and some have become subconscious, core beliefs that interfere with our life today. We may be using food to cope with the stress in our lives. But, in time, our destructive eating behavior actually makes the stress worse. We find that we have less time and less energy.
Because we automatically use food, we cannot discover what is truly disturbing us. If we are not conscious of these associations, the first step in changing them is awareness. We can’t change something if we are not even aware of it.
What Is Disordered Eating?
People with disordered eating have developed the habit of relying on food to cope with life situations. They use food as a means to displace or “stuff down” uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. They may use food to avoid some part of life by grazing or eating all day. This is called compulsive overeating. Some may binge, eating large amounts of food in a short time. Binge eating usually starts in response to a diet. Others may restrict their food intake with a rigid diet until they become so malnourished that they cannot think clearly or function physically, and until their long-term health, or even their life itself, is endangered. This is anorexia. Still others may overeat, and then get rid of the food. This is bulimia.
Disordered eating is not just about food. The primary thing that keeps a person trapped in the illness is FEAR: fear of getting fat, fear of rejection, fear of being found out, fear of abandonment, fear of being controlled, or fear of feeling. By concentrating on the illness, weight, diet, or body image, one can avoid the fear and numb the feelings.
A mental obsession with food, weight, diet, or body image has profound effects on our self-esteem, relationships, finances, daily activities, and quality of life. People often become depressed or anxious because of their eating patterns.
At the beginning of our eating disorder, we successfully managed to block out troubling feelings by occupying our mind with thoughts of food or thinness. The problem with this is that as our feelings get stuffed down over and over again, the internal pressure builds. We don’t exercise other methods of coping, and soon food becomes our only coping mechanism. We become hard-wired to turn to our disorder whenever a feeling comes up.
After a while we have no room for any more feelings. We may find ourselves reacting to everything around us by turning to food. We don’t acknowledge our pain, so we don’t do anything to alleviate our growing desperation. We think food is the problem, when in fact, we have substituted food for a deeper problem—and it’s just not working anymore. We find ourselves trapped in a cycle with no way to break free.
Breaking the Cycle
In recovery it is important to realize that we have done the best we could up to this point. Negative self-criticism about previous actions only perpetuates the cycle. The solution is to recognize that there is a relationship between our emotions and our eating behaviors. Destructive eating behaviors are just a symptom of the problem, not its root cause.
To get down to the root cause, we need to identify why we are turning to food or to an obsessive restriction of food. Then we can take action to deal with this underlying cause. You can break the cycle at any point—and the cycle does break. All you need to start recovering is the willingness to change, to open your mind to a different approach.
Our thoughts are the first link to our actions. If we want to reach out our hand, our mind has to tell our arm to move. So we must identify the thoughts that trigger the unwanted act of eating when we are not physically hungry or denying ourselves food when we are hungry. Armed with this knowledge, we can find suitable substitutes. Starting with small steps, through the use of repetition, we can form new habits.
So GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK! You have spent too much energy negatively criticizing yourself in the past. Why do you fail to acknowledge the many good things you accomplish in a day? It is time to start congratulating yourself for things well done!
At first, you may want to start out simple. Tell yourself , “Hey, nice job of brushing those teeth!” or “Wow, good driving!” on the way to work. Take moments throughout the day to congratulate yourself for things you do well.
In time, these repetitive affirmations will begin a new cycle of behavior. This practice of nurturing or “reparenting” yourself will help you become more attuned to your internal dialog and avoid those negative influences. You can work with yourself instead of against yourself. The body was designed to work in conjunction with your appetite by eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. You can get back in touch with this innate ability.
Focus on the intention to live your life with confidence and self-acceptance. Find things to appreciate and enjoy. Positive self-talk can break the cycle and free you from the need to use food as a substitute for living a full life.
After years of experience helping clients recover from the effects of dieting, obesity, eating disorders, addictions, and disordered eating, Rebecca can share some facts that can restore our society to sanity regarding food, weight, and addiction.
Ms. Cooper has a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is a California licensed therapist, Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist.
She started the first transitional living residence for women recovering from eating disorders. She is the Founder and President of Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs™ located in Orange County, California, where she heads up a team of psychologists, therapists, registered dietitians, exercise physiologist, psychiatrist, and a medical doctor.
Rebecca is the author of the Diets Don’t Work® Structured Program, a step-by-step program for disordered eating. This innovative program is successfully being used by recovery homes, therapists, and clients.
She is also CEO of 21st Century Wellness, Inc., and is President of the Orange County Chapter of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.
Ms. Cooper is the author of 16 published articles and has two "soon to be released" books. In addition to recording DVDs, CDs, and tapes about her program, Ms. Cooper also appears on television and radio to promote eating disorder awareness.
Rebecca has been the guest on radio/web shows; Let’s Talk Recovery (letstalkrecovery.com) and The Tony Aiello Show on AdviceRadio.com. She has appeared on television on Christian talk shows and WorkOut2 episode 205 and 206 on Bravo. July 2008 she appeared on a FOX News special documentary on drunk -anorexia.
She is an international speaker and conducts workshops and seminars on such topics as Eating Disorders--a National Epidemic, The Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting, Why Diets Don’t Work, Journey to Self, Understanding the Binge Cycle, and A Solution for Disordered Eating.
In October 2004, Rebecca was honored as the Rising Star in Business by WomanSage©, an event sponsored by the University of California at Irvine Medical Center. The award was in recognition to her innovative approach to helping women with eating disorders and her dedicated service of helping others recover.
More information can be found at www.rebeccacooper.com