I have been fortunate, my life has never become unmanageable or out of control because of addictive behaviors.
As an adolescent, however, I developed moderately disordered eating. I believe these symptoms were triggered by other health issues I faced at the time. I avoided almost all fat in my diet, and restricted my caloric intake. I exercised more or felt guilty and awful when I could not motivate myself to exercise. I lost weight and briefly stopped menstruating. Further, I felt proud of myself on days that I rigidly adhered to these restrictions. My self-definition was largely based on body image, and comparison to others. These symptoms eventually abated on their own as I matured and entered a new school. As an adult, residual symptoms like attention to weight and calories/ quantity of food have largely been replaced with attention to being healthful. How does food nurture by body? How do I feel mentally and physically when I attend to my body through moderate exercise? Will I feel better or worse if I just sit here instead of moving around? Still, there are occasions when I find myself focusing on my physical appearance perseveratively, or I return to restrictive eating, eating… permissively, or under-exercising. Often these are times of vulnerability— emotional unfulfillment or stress.
I notice addictive roots in my attitude/behavior when I eat poorly, because the abstinence violation effect kicks in— “I didn’t any vegetables today and I had brownies and soda, so I might as well go all out. F@#$ it.” Or a bad day of shopping, trying clothes on in front of a mirror, and judging can become a trigger for other poor habits (eating junk or eating too much) that do not nourish me. Disappointment and guilt fuel negative behavior, rather than those behaviors that would get me back on track. Further, stressful days accompanied by consumption of high fat, high sugar foods (which trigger dopamine release) perpetuate my craving for these kinds of foods. I no longer seek out healthy foods. With respect to exercise, I also notice black or white thinking that can discourage healthy habits and keeping a routine— “If I went to the pool now, I could only swim for 25 minutes not 45, so I might as well not do it.” When I am at my best, I can use positive self-talk to counter these unhelpful attitudes. (“The really important thing here is that you stay in your routine of exercise, and that you allow yourself to exercise even if you can’t do it “perfectly.”) I also notice roots of obsession if I start checking my appearance in the mirror. I begin to notice how this one issue begins to define my sense of self for the day. I have to set rules for myself or I can tell these behaviors could take over. (“For whatever reason this is a vulnerable day, you need to take care of yourself, so you can’t look in the mirror any more. You only feel worse when you do this.”) These kinds of behaviors are harmful because I become estranged from my other healthier behaviors and because they fuel negative self-evaluation.
Though these behaviors are not pleasant, they are familiar. And as one might welcome back depression as “an old familiar friend,” I occasionally welcome back these old coping strategies when I am feeling vulnerable (down, anxious, tired, worn out, and so on). Eating poorly and not exercising are temporary periods when I release myself from high expectations (“who cares anyway”), though guilt sometimes follows. Further, rich foods are pleasurable and comforting in themselves— stimulating in both their scent and taste. On the other end of the spectrum, on days when I am restrictive, I feel a greater sense of control and self-discipline. Overindulgence and deprivation go hand-in-hand. Deprivation fuels desire and perhaps biological need, which can set off overindulgence. Overindulgence can create negative emotions that make it harder to get back on track. In trying to regain control and to assuage guilt we often overcompensate by depriving ourselves, and thus the cycle starts over.
While these behaviors are not helpful, they are infrequent and not pathological, and so I have not sought treatment. However, I do address perfectionism and self-image issues in periodical individual therapy. What I have found most helpful, as I said, is to focus on the standard of what is nourishing and healthy for body. I feel better about myself when I practice self-care, and when do what I need instead of what I want. I try to use positive self-talk to divorce myself from “the committee” of critics in my head and to reinforce moderation. And when I crave rich or unhealthy foods, I remind myself that a thought or feeling is temporary phenomenon, rather than truth or a call to action. I also find that a period of total abstinence from rich and innutritious foods is sometimes necessary to get back into healthful eating habits, and then I can typically return to incorporating these more luxurious foods into my diet. Further, after periods of uninterrupted balanced eating, I find I do not miss rich foods nearly as much. Time and self-care do ease craving and preoccupation.