So what do we do with that self-perpetuating stress loop to try to feel better? We reach for the only feel-good our neural habit patterns know to go for: our eating disorders! And the loop perpetuates.
This is the most important piece to get right here, because if you do it will change your life forever.
Having an eating disorder or any other addiction does not indicate that you are an insane freak, or lack willpower. What it says to me is that you love yourself and you want to feel better. Your nervous system has been conditioned to reach for food or to avoid food to get the self-soothing or sense of control you seek. An eating disorder is really an act of self love and self care gone awry.
I say gone awry because stress — both emotional and physical — is a side effect of the strategy a person with an eating disorder is using to feel better, and to get over the very stress that started the cycle to begin with. They are caught in a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop. Here is a picture of how the missing x-factor I call the emotional eating loop perpetuates itself:
THE COMPULSION LOOP
- The loop begins with a mindset: self-judgment, self-criticism and an all-or-nothing perfectionism that causes stress
- Stress leads to the need to feel in control or the need for comfort and to self-soothe. Where we will reach for that?
- Reach for it outside — the refrigerator, the cupboard, the gym or another addiction
- Reaching outside oneself to self soothe or gain control leads to more self judgment and perfectionism, and perpetuates the stress-self-soothe-with-substance loop
A heroin addict or an alcoholic interrupts this loop by quitting their substance cold turkey. When I was tortured by my own eating disorders, I kid you not that I was actually jealous of my patients who were heroin addicts! They could quit their substance cold turkey but I couldn't do that with food (that tells you how bad off I was!).
However, I don't feel that way anymore. Because what I came to discover is that playing out an addictive pattern through an eating disorder forces you to befriend yourself and food, and in doing so to make a new and more fulfilling relationship to yourself and your life. Too often, when people quit one addiction cold turkey they displace another one onto it. Recovering alcoholics tend to become sugar addicts, for example. The real opportunity any addiction offers (and that eating disorders demand of us because we cannot stop eating and live to tell about it), is to replace numbing our feelings using substances, with listening to our feelings and honoring what they are telling us we really need.
The key to stopping eating disorders lies in making the stress we feel an important advisor with messages for us to listen to, rather than a nuisance irritation we judge and move to numb or suppress or distract with an addiction. This requires going into our hearts rather than the fridge or the gym for the emotional release, centering and self-soothing we seek. Keep reading ...