This post was originally written in October 2011. It has been heavily edited to hopefully retain the most useful parts for future readers.
One of the primary reasons that many members of this site are active on the forums is that an eating disorder involves a lot of fear. The original forums were a place where those newly embarking on a recovery effort could ask the same questions, usually over and over, to try to manage the fear and keep moving forward.
For some, no matter how many other members might reply, nor how many times the same question would be answered, the fear stopped them in their tracks. For others, they kept going despite the unabated fear they faced.
It is the most infernal aspect of the fact that an eating disorder lives under the broader umbrella of many different kinds of anxiety disorders: anxiety does not understand logic.
Anxiety mounts and the conscious mind, the executive functions of the brain, presumes that when some logic does not seem to assuage the anxiety, then more logic must be required.
This process reminds me somewhat of what is called the streetlight effect:
A police officer sees a drunk stumbling around a streetlight presumably looking for something. The drunk informs the police officer that he has lost his wallet. The wallet is clearly not there, so officer asks the drunk if he is sure he dropped it here, and the drunk responds that it was likely “back there a ways”. “Why don’t you go there to look then?” the officer asks. The drunk replies, "This is where the light is.”
Looking for solutions where you may expect to find them, or where it appears easier to find them, is what the streetlight effect is about and the parable is often used within scientific communities to remind ourselves that the real answer may not be where you expect to find it.
Seeking confirmation that a path we have chosen in life is likely to be a good one is part of the human condition and completely normal.
However, expecting reassurance to assuage any fear or anxiety you may have about your chosen course of action will not succeed. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Feel the fear, do it anyway.”
Imagine you decide you are going to go on your very first parachute jump. You are doing a tandem jump. You are going to have a session ahead of time preparing you for absolutely all eventualities. The trainers will go through all the safety measures, the equipment, the checks and double-checks. They will explain the entire process from start to finish. You are jumping tethered to an expert with over 100 solo jumps on his record and double that of tandem jumps with neophytes as well.
I doubt any of you would expect that entire pre-jump program would eradicate your fear and anxiety. The same is true of undertaking a recovery process from an eating disorder. Not all fear and anxiety will be eradicated. There will be no perfect moment to begin. There will just be a leap of faith based on the deep knowledge that your existing quality of life is unacceptable and that what lies beyond, while not entirely known, is inevitably going to be better than where you are right now.
There is a process to get to the point of leaping into a full-on recovery process and it involves critical thinking, skepticism and questioning. However, be careful that you don’t get immobilized with numbers, statistics and clinical data. Many of you are further confused by conflicting advice from your health care professionals, or from past inpatient or outpatient experiences.
Anxiety is never completely assuaged with numbers, statistics and data.
When Anxiety Stops Being Helpful
Anxiety is a pretty useful emotion that supports survival. In fact the emotional center in our brain provides tremendous underpinnings for things that we presume are totally managed by our logical minds.
We cannot actually decide many things without the input of emotional context. For patients who have had any head trauma that negates emotional context that usually frames logical thought, they are incapable of even deciding what to have for lunch.
Just as no emotion renders us incapable of making decisions, so too can a disproportionate amount of emotion immobilize our decision making process.
If Caleb decides whether to have a slice of pie or a brownie when he sits down at a café with a friend, and he chooses to have the brownie, when I ask him about what drove his decision he will basically guess. We don’t know an awful lot about why we make the decisions we make, but our sense of self comes up with something that seems reasonable and we stick with our story.
Priming schemas are a fascinating area of study that I’ll save for another time, but for now let’s talk about when these split second decisions might go awry.
So, let’s have me sitting down at a café with a friend and I decide to have a brownie instead of a slice of pie. Because I have no history of restrictive eating, we can know that there was likely no underlying anxiety challenging my decision. In the end I may be happy with my choice or not, but I will also not dwell too much on whether the brownie really satisfied me or not. I have an average level of emotional context that supports my logical decision making process.
Now we’ll have you sit down at that same café.
The decision to have slice of pie or a brownie will be a phenomenal mental processing marathon. You will be compelled to assess so many other aspects beyond what seems more appealing to you at that moment. Sadly, when you finally and torturously arrive at your decision, you feel no relief and your mind keeps revisiting the choice you have made. Chances are also really good that you will be struggling with remorse, regret and guilt after having made the decision.
Basically your emotions won’t leave you alone. They are not providing you with context that supports a logical decision, they are riding roughshod all over everything and won’t give you a minute’s peace.
Specifically, your anxiety is not resolved by dint of having made a decision.
In these circumstances we can be convinced that with additional information we might be able to make the better decision, or the right decision. Perhaps if we knew exactly what the size of the slice of pie was going to be, or perhaps if we knew the caloric content, or perhaps if we knew whether the brownie had unprocessed cocoa or melted milk chocolate pieces…
We are so used to having our emotional center frame our decision making that when it starts to run in overdrive we quickly slide into an unwinnable effort to try to convince our feelings through logic. Many spouses experience deep puzzlement when their powers of logic and helpful facts don’t seem to land well with a distressed mate.
But it’s not just those helpful mates that are at fault – we too are busily trying to logically think our way out of our locked-down sense of dread and failing at every turn.
The answer? Sit with the discomfort and move forward despite the fact that the anxiety is screaming at you that you need “MORE (information, time, data, choices…)”
The anxiety will not stand down no matter what you hand it on a silver platter. But it is just a feeling. It’s not the sum total of your entire experience. It’s not reality.
Some Exercises to Work Around Anxiety
Try this exercise right now:
Think about the best afternoon you ever had. Recreate all the details in your mind. Were you outside on a gorgeous sunny day? Were you snuggled up by the fireplace with a great book? Were you hanging out with a bunch of friends on a beach or chatting with someone at the kitchen table? Whatever the details, spend at least five minutes conjuring them all up in your mind.
Now pull out a piece of paper and either recreate all of it by sketching it, doodling it, writing down adjectives to describe how great you felt, writing a poem about it – doesn’t matter how you express it just find the way that works best for you on paper.
Now tell me how would you describe your mood at the moment?
Moods are malleable. We can change the dominant emotion even in the most intense or stressed of circumstances. And we often do.
There’s a second part to this exercise of course.
Now think about the most exasperating and frustrating afternoon you can recall. Did the car breakdown? Did you dump coffee all over your suit on the way to work? Did you have no sleep staying up with a sick kid? Did your partner do something thoughtless that just made even more work for you?
Conjure it up in all its frustrating detail and go through the same exercise of getting it down on paper by drawing it or writing about it (whatever you prefer).
But this time, instead of just confirming that you are likely now feeling much more agitated and even angry, flip over the piece of paper and write down how you handled the frustration that built up on that day.
Did you simply throw up your hands and laugh? Did you end up in tears? Did you snap at someone else? Did you feel so overwhelmed that you just completely retreated from the whole mess? Did you take it out on the guilty culprit and feel really vindicated afterwards? Did you feel that you had somehow failed to manage it all “in the right way”?
While moods are malleable, we judge our moods differently. When we experience positive emotions, we assume that they need no more assessment than to simply live them. But when we experience negative emotions, we assume they must be managed, handled, avoided, expressed, suppressed…
Understandably they are called negative emotions because we don’t like to feel them. But both negative and positive emotions are a completely unavoidable part of being alive.
What if you spent an entire day treating every negative emotion as though it were a positive one? It means that you won’t be attempting to manage, handle, express, suppress, avoid, tackle or whatever else you think has to happen to wrestle that emotion back into the box.
Ever been in that place where you are having such a wonderful time you don’t want it to end? But it ends nonetheless. And you survive its passing.
And of course you can be in a place where you are having such a horrendous time that you desperately want it do end. And it ends and you survive its passing.
Of course I should point out here that there are many with overactive anxiety loops who will try to manage even positive emotions: “Uh oh, I am feeling happy and that means I’m going to be let down, hurt, disappointed.” If you happen to be someone in that space of managing all your feelings all the time out of a sense of impeding doom and dread, then you will have to disconnect from judging both positive and negative emotions. That’s best supported with some techniques and advice from a counselor or therapist.
Don’t forget to check in with your health care professionals when it comes to using the information here, and also get new professionals on board if you are unhappy with their response to date.