For individuals who are recovering from a restrictive eating disorder, one important component of their treatment is to face their “fear” or “trigger” foods. For many people in recovery this task can seem incredibly daunting-and it may be difficult to know where to start. Some people may put this challenge off by telling themselves that they will face these foods, when they are feeling less afraid or when the eating disorder voice is quieter. However, the paradox of this is that you will only begin to feel less afraid by gradually exposing yourself to what you are afraid of. Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., exemplified this in her book entitled “Feel The Fear…And Do it Anyway” when she stated,
“I had grown up waiting for the fear to go away before I took any chances. When I am no longer afraid…then! For most of my life I had played the when/then game and it never worked. Fear of particular situations dissolved when I finally confronted them. The doing it comes before the fear goes away.”
Ultimately, fear is a normal part of any process that causes personal growth. However, it is possible to feel afraid and to do a behavioral action anyways. Further, the reality is that you cannot fully recover from a restrictive eating disorder without challenging your food rules and fears. Although eating disorders are way more complex than just being about food-one critical aspect of the recovery process is normalizing your relationship with food-in part by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Now I’m certainly not saying that it is going to be easy to eat the foods that your eating disorder voice is telling you to avoid at all costs-however if you wish to find freedom, it is necessary to challenge yourself (in small steps). The following are some tips for facing your fear foods in eating disorder recovery.
1. Write a list of your fear foods starting with the ones that are least challenging to the most challenging.
The goal of challenging your fear foods/food rules is to gradually step out of your comfort zone in a way that is anxiety provoking, but does not feel completely unsafe. Therefore, it can be helpful to start by making a list of the foods that are the least challenging-up to the ones that are the most challenging. This way you can ensure that you face your food fears in a way that is more gradual, by starting from the bottom of the list and slowly working your way up.
If you want to make the list more comprehensive you could include a scale where you rate each food from 1-10 in terms of how anxiety provoking it is. Additionally, you could have a space next to each food to record your thoughts and feelings prior to and following each exposure. For some it can be helpful to write what your eating disorder voice is telling you about each food, and then to write a statement from your healthy voice underneath.
2. Start by pairing the challenge food with a less challenging food.
Another technique used by some is that for each exposure they pair the challenge food with a less scary food-so as not to overwhelm themselves. For instance, let’s say that you had a fear of peanut butter. For snack you could pair some peanut butter with a food that is less scary to you. For instance, let’s say that apples were not scary to you-you may decide to have an apple and some peanut butter as part of your exposure. This is not another “rule” which you have to follow and it is important to figure out which method works for you, but this is one strategy that some people might find to be helpful.
3. Find a support person who can assist you in facing your fear foods.
When your eating disorder voice is very loud, it may be highly difficult to disobey it on your own. Finding support when facing your fear foods can be incredibly helpful in your eating disorder recovery. For instance, if you have a therapist, nutritionist, or mentor, you could consider asking them if they would be willing to eat some of your challenge foods with you. If you do not have access to a treatment team asking a friend, partner, or family member to eat your challenge foods with you could be helpful.
It is important to let whomever you decide to be your support, know what you need from them in that moment. For instance, you might tell your mom that you would like for her to eat one of your fear foods with you-and that you want to talk about things other than food while doing so. Just try to ensure that the person, whom you choose to do some of the exposures with does not have their own issues surrounding food and weight-as that could be highly triggering.
If you don’t have a support person in your life who can do this with you-another option is to receive support over the phone prior to or following an exposure exercise. One resource for finding support of someone who is in strong recovery from an eating disorder is MentorConnect. You can check out their website here: http://www.mentorconnect-ed.org
4. Work to practice self-compassion.
It’s important to note that in facing your fear foods-you are doing something that is amazingly brave. True strength is not denying yourself food or avoiding certain foods-rather it is facing your fear foods despite what the eating disorder voice may be screaming at you. However, it is critical that you try to practice self-compassion and be gentle with yourself-especially for any perceived “mistakes” that you may make in the recovery process. Beating yourself up for not doing a food challenge “perfectly” will not help your in your recovery journey. Additionally, it is normal to feel very scared and out of control. It is ok that you are feeling this way and the fact that you are trying to challenge yourself shows so much courage. This is the time to be kind to yourself because you are battling an illness-that you certainly did not choose to have. However, full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.