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 recovery from a restrictive eating disorder.
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.
Also, it is important that you expose yourself to same fear food multiple times before moving on to the next one. Recovery isn't a race and it's okay and normal if this process takes some time. You can determine that you are ready to move on to the next fear food in your hierarchy, if your anxiety has significantly decreased in response to the particular food that you have been repeatedly exposing yourself to.
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 more challenging 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. 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.
If you feel ready to do two challenge foods at once, go for it! There is no "right" or "wrong" way to go about these exposures. It really is about finding out which approach works best for you and your recovery. Additionally, it is critical to be mindful that you are not engaging in any compensatory behaviors following the exposure, as this will not allow your anxiety to naturally come down on it's own and only serves to strengthen your eating disorder voice.
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.
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 okay 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, which you certainly did not choose to have. However, full recovery from an eating disorder is possible -- it is never too late.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist who specializes in working with adolescents, survivors of trauma, mood disorders, and eating disorders. Jennifer blogs on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She is also a regular contributing writer for Eating Disorder Hope, as well as a variety of other websites.
For body-positive, recovery inspiration connect with Jennifer on Facebook.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.