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.

The Cycle

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.

Ideas to Think About [SIDEBAR]

• What I focus on grows. Will I focus on negative or positive thoughts?
• Energy goes where attention flows. As long as I continue to focus on my problem, I will feel overwhelmed and depleted. As I move into solutions, I gain momentum.
• My self-talk is self-hypnosis. As I listen to what I am telling myself on a daily basis, I ask myself, Is that something I want to reinforce in myself?
• Change takes place in the present. I can’t change what I ate in the past, and I can’t live in the future. I can only begin change right now, with this meal, this bite, this thought.
• Anticipating anxiety produces anxiety. My body actually produces chemicals in response to my thoughts.
• Negative thoughts are like weeds in a garden. Unless they are plucked, they will tend to overtake my consciousness. My happiness is a function of eliminating negative thinking.
• Trying to change another through control and blame never works. I can change only my own reactions and actions.
• I practice noticing what happens when I think of something I am grateful for.
• Freedom is thinking about food only when I am hungry or preparing for a meal.
For a Healthy Perspective, Practice These Thoughts [SIDEBAR]
• Change is possible. I can consciously develop my ability to eliminate unwanted thoughts and feelings.
• My thoughts determine my feelings.
• I am greater than my fear, and I no longer give my fear the power to control my life.
• I determine how I choose to see every situation. While I may have been victimized by past circumstances, I no longer choose to remain a victim!
• I have so much to be grateful for today! [Make a gratitude list.]
• My life has a higher purpose, and as I choose to focus on that, my problems seem smaller.

Author's Bio: 

Rebecca Cooper, MFT, CEDS, is the author of the Diets Don’t Work®; a structured program to heal disordered eating. For more information about her program, contact her at 800-BULIMIA, www.rebeccashouse.org or rebecca@DietsDontWork.org.

If you a friend or loved one that needs treatment for an eating disorder, go to www.rebeccashouse.org or call 1.866.931.1666.