Food and Fear: Taking the Fright out of Halloween Treats

For disordered eaters, the fear of Halloween candy is far more terrifying than horror movies, haunted houses and ghoulish costumes. Let’s be honest – we often fear all major holidays because of the food involved, but it seems especially hard on Halloween!
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At least on a feasting holiday such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’re surrounded by others who are also overindulging, so there’s probably a little less shame. But on Halloween, we often find ourselves alone and secretly binging on candy or stealing the kids’ candy – either that or grazing on it constantly in the days after … and then we feel even more ashamed than usual. This kind of shame is powerful, overwhelming and even debilitating.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, this great fear of Halloween candy just increases the chances of a HUGE binge. So, with Halloween only a couple days away, here are my tips for you on how to survive this week:

  1. Ditch the fear and worry. Halloween will come whether you want it to or not. Remind yourself that fear and worry will not help – they will, in fact, make it worse.
  2. Make a plan. If you are working with a dietitian, nutritionist, or medical professional, talk to them and make a plan (especially if you have serious health conditions*). Otherwise, make your own plan. One option would be to allow yourself to have some candy with NO guilt. You determine the amount. Do not try to compensate by restricting before or after or by overexercising. Just have some and be done with it.
    Note: If you aren’t yet comfortable eating candy at all, then plan to treat yourself in another way. This treat could be another food treat that you feel is “safer,” or it might be unrelated to food – a spa treatment, perhaps! Allow yourself to choose something that makes you excited and happy with no guilt.
  3. Have fun with other people. Go out to a party, take your kids trick or treating, or go see a scary movie. If you’re stuck with a mass of homework or housework, try to make it fun or treat yourself at some point during the evening. Remember,eating disorders thrive on isolation.
  4. If you end up overeating or binging, forgive yourself immediately and move on. It’s not worth feeling guilty about. It’s just not. It’ll make you 10 times more likely to binge again the next day, and then the whole weekend. One binge doesn’t have to turn into 10 binges.

* As always, consult a medical professional if you have a serious health condition.

And there you have it – my tips for dealing with Halloween. I hope you find yourself enjoying Halloween and maybe even enjoying some treats. J So, tell me. How do YOU plan to spend Halloween this year?

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One day at a time?

Anyone who’s ever thought about entering recovery of any kind has probably heard this phrase: “one day at a time.” And it’s a great phrase! It’s used in many recovery programs, especially 12-step programs. However, as with anything else, I think it can be misinterpreted and can hurt us if not used carefully.

“One day at a time” is a great mantra to use when you’re trying to change a behavior. In the case of eating disorders, sometimes “one meal at a time” is even more appropriate! Using these mantras can help the overall goal of change seem much less intimidating. Anybody can do anything for ONE day or ONE meal, right? And then you begin to build on those days or meals, one at a time, gathering more and more strength until you’ve truly achieved change and it’s no longer a daily struggle. I think it can be useful in avoiding all-or-nothing thinking, such as “I will NEVER binge again” … which often sets us up for failure, right? Instead, you just say “I am not binging TODAY.” One day at a time. It’s so simple yet beautiful.

On the other hand, some people misuse the “one day at a time” phrase to justify dangerous or irresponsible behaviors or thinking. If your goal is unrealistic or unhealthy (for example, maybe you want to skip meals or eat extremely low-calorie), “one day at a time” isn’t appropriate because it could lead you to believe that it’s OK to adopt unhealthy behaviors that are not sustainable long term. In this kind of scenario, “one day at a time” is sadly just about willpower (which is generally not very helpful in ED recovery) rather than true change.

Ideally, I think a more long-term perspective is beneficial when formulating a plan. I do think there is some truth to the idea that “if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” I’m not suggesting an extremely detailed plan; we certainly can’t control everything or imagine every possible scenario. However, it’s good to have long-term goals: What is a way of eating that will be sustainable for you in the long term? How will you handle setbacks? Don’t use “one day at a time” to avoid planning for possible setbacks. Because difficulties WILL arise, and you are likely to have setbacks and relapses. It’s better to acknowledge this in the beginning and have a plan for how you’ll handle setbacks … because if you don’t, then you’re likely to hurt yourself in two ways: (1) when life gets hard, you’ll turn to food because you don’t have any other strategies to use; and (2) when you do binge or slip up, you’ll return to your old habits of beating yourself up, rather than opting for more productive post-binge strategies. And of course, this keeps the binge cycle going, over and over again (as we all know!!). This is why I think it’s important to first make a plan that will work for you in the long term that addresses the possibility of relapse and makes concrete plans for how to handle it. THEN, you can use the “one day at a time” strategy to actually implement your plan and goals (and tweak the plan when needed)!

So, if you are truly honest with yourself and realistic about the future, “one day at a time” can be very useful! But sometimes ED’s tight grip on our minds makes it difficult to be honest and realistic though; this is why most of us can benefit from receiving some kind of external support, such as therapy or support group (even an online support group). 🙂

This is how I personally have found the “one day at a time” phrase to work FOR me, rather than against me. Agree or disagree? What is YOUR experience with viewing recovery in the short term versus the long term?

“I’m surprised I don’t feel worse.”

The title of this blog post was taken directly from a journal entry in May of 2012, after describing a particularly large daytime movie/food binge. Most of my binging occurred at night before bed because that way I didn’t have to deal with the physical consequences as much (because I would sleep them off). But, occasionally, I had daytime binges by myself while my husband was at work. Sometimes I told myself it would be a good strategy to binge during the day – if I did that, then I wouldn’t need to binge at night. I called this the “pre-emptive strike,” and sometimes it worked. Many times it didn’t. It sounds really ridiculous as a strategy, but I was desperate to get out of my nightly binge routine and would try anything to break the habit (even if it was simply moving the binge to an earlier time of day).

Anyway, the reason I’m telling this story is that the sentence above really stood out to me when I was recently skimming old journal entries. I thought, it kind of implies that I should be feeling worse, perhaps even that I wanted to feel worse. Did I deliberately want to feel worse? Sometimes, no – sometimes I was truly seeking comfort in food – in the only way I knew how, at that time, and I wanted to feel better. But sometimes, yes, I was so desperate to break this habit that I intentionally tried to make myself feel as awful as possible, in hopes that it would make me change. I thought maybe I could force myself to have a rock-bottom moment! So, sometimes I would eat with the intention of trying to be sick, trying to feel as awful as possible, in the hopes that it would FINALLY make me stop. And each time, I thought this is it, this is my rock bottom, I’m done with this. But the next day or the next week, I would find out I’m not really done, and the cycle would begin again. How messed up is that – trying to force a miserable rock-bottom moment?

Obviously, this didn’t work. After more than a year of this, I finally realized that I couldn’t force this. I couldn’t force myself to stop binging overnight – I couldn’t say “Day 1 of never binging again.” I couldn’t force myself to stop gaining weight or to start losing. I couldn’t force myself to eat healthy or to BE healthy. I couldn’t force myself to beat this eating disorder through willpower. I had assumed that because I stopped smoking that way (cold turkey), that I could do the same with binging. But it wasn’t meant to be. I had to start SLOW and start over – this meant totally re-establishing my relationship with my body and with food very gradually. I had to accept that this was going to take a while, and I might not stop binging immediately, and I wasn’t going to be perfect at it. This was a totally new way of thinking to me (especially letting go of some of the perfectionism), but I realized that I had to try – because nothing else had worked. I needed to stop treating recovery like a diet. Well, guess what? It worked – I don’t binge anymore, and I don’t even want to. I’m becoming more and more free of ED every day. Although still evolving, my relationship with food and with my body is better than ever, and it’s the most amazing feeling. I never thought it was possible to not be obsessed with food, but it is. And it happened because I simply allowed it to happen – rather than trying to force change.

Have you ever tried to force yourself to hit rock bottom? Have you struggled with the perfectionist, all-or-nothing diet mentality that is often at the core of ED?

Is binging really about emotions?

The answer to this question is partly yes. Binge eating disorder is a complex disorder with lots of different causes that vary from person to person. Emotions are just one of the contributing causes, but they are a really, really big one. But I hear many BED sufferers saying that their binging has nothing to do with emotions. To this, I have two things for you to think about.

First, consider the possibility that you may not even recognize the emotions triggering the binging and ED thoughts. Compulsive behaviors and addictions are so good at numbing our feelings, and many of us have been doing it nearly our entire lives. If you have struggled with food or other compulsive or addictive behaviors for much of your life, there is a good chance you may be rather out of touch with your emotions. I know I was. Simply identifying and naming emotions was incredibly difficult for me at first, and initially I refused to believe that I was an emotional eater! But not being able to recognize emotions is actually a sign that you probably ARE an emotional eater. This is particularly true of many of us who developed disordered eating or other mental health issues during childhood or teenage years, before we could develop into emotionally mature adults. And it’s OK that it happened that way. It really is. However … it IS up to us to take action to change. It’s not easy, but it can be done. For now, I’ll leave it at that; stay tuned for many more posts about emotional eating in the future. J

Second, for those who still don’t think your binging is emotional at all, consider this. Perhaps there is no particular emotion is triggering your binges. I think that is possible! But at some point during the process, emotions do enter the picture. Whether you’re just starting to pass from normal eating into binge mode or whether you’ve already been binging for quite some time, you’re likely feeling some altered state of emotion – you might think of it as a “high” if you’re feeling intoxicated by the pleasure of eating, or you might think of it as an extreme “low” if you’re feeling guilty and self-punishing while you eat. Or maybe you feel kind of numb, not really feeling anything, especially if you’re watching TV or doing something else to distract you. Fair enough. But EVEN THEN, I argue that emotions come into play. Notice what happens if you try to stop eating, if you tell yourself it’s time to stop, or if you (or someone else) forces yourself to stop before you’re ready … the odds are, you’re going to feel something at that point! It could be intense rage or sadness, or it could be as simple as a feeling of slight anxiety, unease, or disappointment. You’re feeling something difficult because it’s hard to stop eating. And that’s usually why you keep eating, keep binging, even when you know you’re going to eat yourself sick – it’s because you’d rather face the familiar after-binge bloated, guilty and miserable feelings than facing the unfamiliar feelings of discomfort that arise when you try to stop eating. If you were truly feeling no emotion at that point, you would simply stop eating because there is no logical reason to keep eating to the point of sickness.

Of course, I’m not saying that emotions are entirely to blame for binging. They are not; other psychological, biological and social factors are likely involved as well. But I believe the emotions are perhaps the most powerful cause, and the reason they have so much power is because we have been avoiding them all our lives. Still, this is not a hopeless situation … we need not be ruled by negative emotions and compulsive behaviors. By confronting our feelings – ALL of them, even the difficult ones – they lose that all-consuming power over us. This is by no means an easy thing to do, and it takes a lot of work and practice and patience with ourselves. But it sure beats binging! As they say, the worst day in recovery is still better than the BEST day in the life of an eating disorder!! Choose recovery – choose YOU and your life! 🙂

What are your thoughts about the role of feelings in your eating disorder experiences?