I’ve been thinking about food anxiety lately. It seems such a cruel irony.
As a teenager I experienced this to a very mild extent. I was a fussy eater, especially in regards to meat. If I found any fat or grizzle, then I’d refuse to eat the rest of the meal. I also didn’t like onions (still don’t, but I can now cope like an adult.) I would comb through pasta sauces looking for those hidden slithers of evil! This naturally made me anxious about dining out, particularly with extended family who wouldn’t shy away from pointing out how fussy I was. A plain cheeseburger? That’s a bit boring Claire… LEAVE ALONE DAMMIT!
However, fortunately my anxiety decided to go down the ‘public speaking/social gatherings/large crowds’ route, (lucky me) so the food aspect didn’t develop.
However, I have witnessed food anxiety on a lower scale in one of my best friends. B is a confident, relaxed and happy women. Nevertheless, during very stressful periods, her eating habits are affected. She develops a complex which causes her to freak out when eating in front of others. The last time I noticed this was during the lead up to her wedding, (naturally a stressful time.) We were on her hen do and she told me that during a standard lunch she experienced a massive panic attack and couldn’t eat anything. She was sobbing in the toilets and felt horrendous. Her mum couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, which made B feel even worse. A list of horrible thoughts flooded her brain:
What if she couldn’t eat on her wedding day?
What if people noticed and thought she was odd?
What if she can never eat in front of people again?
I’m pleased to say that B only needed the support of her friends and family to overcome this. The ability to just be honest and say; ‘I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to eat, so please don’t make a fuss,’ instantly helped her to calm down.
However, this is not the case for everyone and after receiving an email from a reader, it struck me just how devastating it can be.
So despite not having any first-hand experience of this problem, I’d like to have a go at helping others to tackle it. FYI – I may be talking complete shite, so feel free to discard everything if you don’t agree.
Let’s start with the bad news: I’m afraid you’ll have to dine out in a restaurant. It’ll be hard, you’ll be scared and it won’t be pleasant. Good news: You CAN do this and we’ll build things up gradually over a 3-6 month period, (you can adapt the plan to suit your needs.)
The first thing to highlight is that the plan requires hard work and dedication. In other words, don’t bother starting if you’re only going to do it for a few days.
I’m a big believer in David Carbonell’s ‘Exposure Therapy.’ To be clear, this isn’t as aggressive as it sounds… e.g. If you’re scared of heights, then jump out of a freaking aeroplane.. cured. It involves gradually exposing yourself to a situation that makes you uncomfortable in order to desensitise yourself.
Let me guess what you’re thinking; Absolutely not… I can’t do that… it won’t work for me I’m different, I’m beyond help. Well to be honest all those phrases mean exactly the same thing to me ‘I’m afraid’… and that’s 100% natural, as your brain is trying to protect you. I can’t ask you to block out those thoughts because it’s impossible and ultimately counter-productive. But instead all I’m asking is that you think; Ok yes I’m afraid and that’s ok.. I’ll take this one step at a time and see how I go on.
Just to give you a bit of insight and hopefully inspiration. Almost two years ago when I was running around my living room having back to back panic attacks and sobbing hysterically, I truly thought that my life was over. There was no hope for me and I was going to be miserable forever. Now.. If I would’ve told that girl that within twenty months, not only would she be back at work, but would’ve had three interviews (my worst nightmare see previous posts,) successfully changed jobs AND given a presentation in front of 100 people… she would’ve spat in my face!
It was hard and terrifying, but ultimately it set me free from the depths of mental illness.
Ok I think that the majority of a nxiety conditions can be treated in a similar way. So let’s focus 100% on food anxiety and set up a personalised plan. You’ll need to do the following things:
- Cardio exercise to burn off excessive adrenaline (unless a doctor has advised against this.) 10 Minutes a day will suffice and can include; running, fast walking, skipping, hopping.. the list is endless! Just something to get your heart thumping naturally.
- A CBT thought chart to tackle those negative thoughts. (Please see ‘Psychic me’ post for examples.)
- The headspace app – trust me this really works and is accessible to everyone. It just helps to give your mind and body a rest for 10 minutes. Do this daily.
- Eat well. I’m not saying only eat carrots and Kale (I hate kale.. dam all the kale!) Instead cut down on things like caffeine and sugar, as they naturally increase adrenaline levels. Try and eat at least one healthy meal a day. Fish in particular is great as it’s full of Omega Three oils (good for the brain.)
- Get plenty of sleep, as it’s exhausting work. Take Nytol if you need a bit of help now and again, there’s no shame in it.
- An exposure therapy plan.
The beauty of an ETP (exposure therapy plan, oh yeah I’m shortening it,) is that you can customise it to suit your needs. For instance, mine was geared more towards specific social situations such as interviews and meetings. Below is an example that a person with food anxiety could follow.
Now please be aware that I’m skipping ahead day wise, to save space!
Feel free to comment if you’d like more suggestions.
Sit in your living room. Close your eyes and think about eating for 60 seconds.
Do headspace for 10 minutes.
Talk to a friend/relative in advance and explain that you’re doing exposure therapy. Ask them to come over to your house and eat something in front of you. You don’t have to eat at this stage, just watch them and chatter as normal.
Go for a 20 minute fast walk
Walk through the canteen at work. Pretend to look at the menu and then leave. You must stay there for at least two minutes.
Go for a 20 minute fast walk
Arrange to go for lunch with a friend but you don’t need to eat. Pick somewhere quiet. e.g. a small café on a Sunday afternoon. Your friend can have lunch and you just have a drink. Experience the environment.
Build your plan over your suggested time scale. However (and I can’t stress this enough.) You must be prepared for the following:
- YOU WILL EXPERIENCE PANIC ATTACKS. This is a dead certainty and you must accept this in advance. Remember: Triggering an attack is a good thing because it proves that you’re outside of your comfort zone. When experiencing the attack try not to leave the situation. You will feel an overwhelming urge to flee, but resist it for at least 60 seconds and let it wash over you. If you leave the situation instantly then you will have effectively communicated to your brain that it was right to trigger an attack as you were in danger. However, if you stay then your brain will realise that you haven’t dropped dead and this will help to ease future attacks.
A good way to deal with an attack is to simply admit it. If you’re with a friend/relative then say; I’m having a panic attack and I’m really frightened – Instruct your friend beforehand to act natural and continue as normal, as fussing only makes things worse. Ask them to distract you with lots of questions or with a funny story. In contrast, if you’re on your own then say it out loud and reply to yourself; That’s ok, it’s ok to feel afraid. I’m going to let it wash over me because nothing bad is going to happen. Then distract yourself with a game or task.
- DO NOT RUSH ADEAD. When I say gradual, I mean gradual. So don’t sit and watch a friend eat one day – think you’re cured – then organise a dinner party for the following weekend! Aim to expose yourself to something initially three times a week and as they get harder reduce this to twice a week. My ETP has now reached a monthly challenge as I have managed to overcome a great deal.
Don’t be disheartened if you have a setback, just start again from your previous step.
- BE GOOD TO YOURSELF. Self-encouragement and acceptance is vital. So after you’ve faced something that made you uncomfortable think; well done me that was fantastic! I was really scared but I faced it. That was such a brave thing to do. I could’ve easily stayed at home but I didn’t. DO NOT berate yourself by saying things such as I’m pathetic, I should be able to sit in a restaurant just like normal people. At the end of the day fear is fear and no matter how or where you face it… the point is that you face it, which makes you incredibly brave! So congratulate yourself and use this great feeling when facing your next challenge.
I really hope that some people find this useful. Feel free to email me if I’ve missed something or if you disagree, because I’d really like to learn more.
In other news, that horrendous case of the blues started to lift last Friday and I now feel much better. I suppose time really is a healer (frustratingly cheesy, but true.)
Fyi – it’s my bday on the 5th so if you’d like to send me loads of presents wish me a happy birthday then please feel free 😉
Take care everyone!