Often, we hope if we think or talk about something enough in our eating disorder recovery, we’ll be totally ready to make a change. We believe we can get our fear and anxiety to subside so we can finally take action. But even therapy can’t usually get us completely to that place. Sometimes, good cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) work challenging irrational irrational thoughts can help—but it rarely eliminates those emotions entirely.
Usually, it’s most helpful to work on accepting but not being controlled by the fear and anxiety… and then acting in spite of it. I know that’s hard. But it’s a hopeful truth because it means you don’t have to eliminate your fear before making changes—which, you probably know from experience hasn’t usually worked. It’s like trying to talk someone who doesn’t know how to swim into not being anxious about getting in the pool. No amount of reasoning about the lifeguard being near by or anything else will make the anxiety go away completely, though it might give them the courage to face their fears and actually get in the pool. Because that’s what it takes… getting into the pool and learning to swim. The action of learning to swim will ease the anxiety.
“Fear and anxiety aren’t usually reduced before taking action; it’s through taking action that fear and anxiety are reduced.”
This is super important to keep in mind when making any kind of change in our lives, but especially in recovery. Disordered eating is 100% rooted in anxiety and fear, and if we wait until those feelings go away to do things differently, we’ll stay stuck forever. The hard truth is that the only way through it… is through it.
Talking about our feelings and working through irrational thoughts can certainly be helpful at times. Still, I know from my own experience and from my work with clients that no amount of telling yourself that eating a cupcake isn’t going to kill you will make the fear just go away. Eating the cupcake can still feel very threatening, even if you know better intellectually. But what happens after you eat the cupcake… maybe not just once, but again… and then again… is the fear and anxiety start to lessen. Things that felt paralyzing before are much more manageable. Over time, they might not even be scary at all. This is the idea behind exposure therapy, which studies have shown to be effective in treating disordered eating.
When I’m working with clients in recovery, they sometimes talk about how overwhelmed they feel with their anxiety about doing something, whether it’s skipping a workout or eating a fear food. So then we review their progress and realize how many things they do that they used to be afraid of but aren’t any more.
You can take action even when you feel anxious and scared. It takes support and the right tools, but it’s one of the most essential elements of recovery. You can’t get better without action.
The bad news? It can be downright terrifying.
The good news? It gets better.
I’m Cherie Miller, MS, LPC, founder of Food Freedom Therapy™. I offer counseling for chronic dieting as well eating disorder therapy for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, ARFID, and other eating disorder issues. Contact me here or follow me on Instagram or Facebook.