Stop Binge Eating

How to Face Food Related Fears

 “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Fear can be useful as it protects us from potentially dangerous things. Fear can give us a boost to make us more effective if we are in physical danger. This was very useful in an evolutionary sense, to keep us alive. Fear can also cause problems if it gets triggered when it is not useful for our survival, such as when fear gets triggered surrounding food and weight.

Fear can be intertwined with many eating and body issues

Here are some examples:
  • Fearing binge eating, thinking that if you eat one treat, you will lose control and eat anything else you can find.
  • Fearing weight gain.
  • Fearing ‘falling off the wagon’ from healthy eating and putting the weight back on.
  • Fearing leaving the house as you do not like how you look.
  • Fearing looking in the mirror or having a photo taken as you do not like your body.
  • Fearing eating ‘forbidden’ foods in case you put on weight.
Whatever your individual issues, it is likely that fear plays a role in keeping the issue going. If so, then it might be worth thinking about whether you can tackle your food-related fears.
Why are we scared of food?

Food is emotive and plays such a large role in our lives. Many of us have been on diets for much of our lives, with our self-worth largely linked to our weight or our ability to manage our food intake. Therefore, how we feel about our eating and our body can have a large impact on how we value ourselves, our mood and how much we enjoy life. With self-value often precariously linked with food-related issues, it is no wonder that we fear being a certain way about food.
Because of the emotion involved, food and body-related thoughts can easily be interpreted as ‘threats’ to our safety, even when logically we know that in most cases these food-related fears do not put us in immediate physical danger. We can easily link non-threatening situations to fear, especially when they mean a lot to us and we have experienced distress related to them in the past.
The problem with avoiding things we fear
  • When something scares us, we tend to avoid it.
  • Then as we have not experienced it, we are not able to realise that it is actually ok.
  • This means that we keep imagining the fear, which makes it multiply.
  • Our imagination is very good at keeping fear going with increasingly escalating imagined scenarios.
  • It is not the thought itself which scares us, but the stories that we weave around it that feed it and keep it going.
What fear does to the body

Fear can range from minor discomfort to being paralysing. Because it is so uncomfortable, we can avoid situations that would be beneficial for us just so that we can avoid fear.
Fear can stop long term memories from forming and can damage the brain. This makes it even more difficult to deal with fear leading to persistent anxiety. With someone who is often anxious, logically innocuous situations are scary and their memories confirm that.
When we experience fear, the body releases hormones that:
  • Stop functions that are not crucial to survival like digestion.
  • Enhance functions that helpful for running away, like raising heart rate and getting blood to muscles.
  • We also get increased activation of the amygdala in the brain which allows us to focus more on danger and store it in our memory.
  • Fear triggers various emotions such as shaking, flushing, weakness, freezing, hiding, running, dizziness.
These things can be unfortunate if you need or want to do something when all of this is happening. Although these feelings are uncomfortable, on their own, they are unlikely to cause any problems.
Feeding our fear

By feeding the fear, we keep it going. When we start worrying that we are going to be embarrassed or ‘lose control’ of our weight or eating, that is what is more likely to happen. When we start to worry like this, we are feeding these reactions.
It can help to realise that it is normal to feel like this, but we do have a choice about how it continues to influence us. If it is difficult to snap out of the cycle, we can try to think about what advice we would give someone else in our situation.
What exactly am I fearing?
  • If you fear weight gain, then it could be helpful to ask what exactly about it scares you?
  • If, for example, there is a fear of someone commenting about your weight, then it could be your own reactions that are really troubling you.
  • Generally, if someone says something about your weight, the words spoken do not last long.
  • It can be how that comment makes us feel and the process of going over it in our minds that can cause the real pain.
  • If you realise exactly what it is that you fear, you may find that it is your own reactions to something that is really the problem.
  • If you realise exactly what the problem is, then you can be better prepared for it.
  • If you realise that the fear is being amplified by our own mind then we have power to stop it.
What belief is driving the fear?

This example exposes the belief underlying the fear, this is likely to be different for everyone and this is just one example. This exercise can be used to investigate whatever fear you have identified:
Ask yourself: Why you are afraid of weight gain?
      Because I like myself better if I am slimmer.
Ask why: Why do I like myself better if I am slimmer?
      I feel more confident when I am slimmer.
Ask why: Why do I feel more confident when I am slimmer?
      Because I think that slimmer people are happier.
Ask why: Why are slimmer people happier?
      Because you must be slim to be happy. (This is an example of an erroneous core belief)
Ask if the core belief is true?
      No it isn’t. There are plenty of slim people who are not happy and vice versa.
So, what is the real fear.
      The fear might be not being good enough due to insecure self-esteem which will not be solved by weight loss alone. The weight related fear is a marker of something else, which needs to be tackled.
Where do food- and weight-related fear come from?

Like any fears, food- and weight-related fears are likely to have come from many past or current experiences, but we keep them going with our minds, habits and patterns.
  • Have you had a formative experience of not feeling good enough?
  • Have you had an experience of bullying or teasing about your body or your weight?
  • Did you experience regular criticism as a child?
  • Have you or someone you know had a bad experience with food or weight?
  • Could it even be a scary story that is influencing you?
  • Did you inherent this fear from a carer when you were a child?
Wherever it comes from, you can choose to keep it going or choose to try and change these patterns.
Even if the fear is rooted somewhere painful, you can learn to stop it being multiplied and perpetuated.

Courage is an antidote to fear 

Courage is being able to control fear and not letting it control you. Courage for one person is not the same for others. For some people only eating one biscuit is courageous, but for others it is no problem. Fear and courage are personal.
Tips to increase courage and neutralise fear

Try finding these things in your life to help you increase your courage:
  • Finding determination, this is when you still really want to do something despite fearing it.
  • Remembering you care, when you want to look after someone or something even though it is not necessarily easy.
  • Swap emotions: it is difficult to have more than one emotion at the same time. Feeling joy, love or even anger can make it much harder to feel fear.
  • Use logic: Is it really that scary or dangerous?
  • Be realistic: Are you being realistic? Is it true or are your thoughts running away with you?
  • Be positive: We can trick our brains into being more positive, by being more positive.
  • Try to laugh or smile: Even forcing yourself to laugh can make your body think you are happy, when you are happy, it is easier to be happy.
  • Take time to relax: Taking some deep breaths and giving yourself some time to relax can help get some space to reflect on whether you are going to choose to tackle the fear.
  • Prepare: Know your triggers and plan. Planning is not the same as dwelling or ruminating.
  • Focus on others, not yourself: Focusing on yourself can lead to rumination. When you focus on others, you may spread a feeling of generosity which can make everyone feel less stressed, and the situation can end up being more pleasant.
  • Embrace new opportunities and learn from others. Remember your successes and learn from things which you were not happy with.
  • Talk about it: Sometimes just talking through a fear can make it feel more manageable. “A problem shared is a problem halved.”
  • Remember: When have you been brave before? Can you remember what allowed you to step out of you comfort zone and be brave? How did it feel? When could you practice doing this again?
You could try this gradual exposure exercise to face your fears. I have used an example of fearing losing control and binge eating biscuits, but the exercise can be used with other fears.
  1. Practice: If you fear losing control and eating all the biscuits, try and pick a time you are feeling courageous and decide to eat just one biscuit. You can remember the experience when you are feeling tempted in future.
  2. Draw your fear: It can become less scary when we focus on it enough to be able to draw it. It does not seem so unfathomable when it is on paper.
  3. Visualise: Imagine how you would like to feel with less fear about the situation, how would it be different? Imagining the feeling of how you would like it to be can help make tackling the fear seem more achievable.
  4. Look at the picture with that positive attitude and stay with the fear. Try to stay with it, try not to let your imagination run off, stay with ‘reality’. By staying with it, and not pushing it away, the fear may start to fade.
  5. Keep practicing steps 1-4 and it should get easier every time. Try and think of something positive about each attempt, even if it is that you tried.
  6. Keep going until you can manage to do it in a real-life situation. As much of the fear is in our minds, tackling it in your mind will help it become easier.
  7. Notice how you feel after facing this challenge and being brave and try and release any leftover tension.
  8. Look back at the event, was the fear justified?
  9. Can you remember how it felt to be brave? Can you call on that feeling when you need it?
Here are the fears described above, I have added some reflections on these that are possible after working through these exercises:
  • Fearing binge eating, thinking that if you eat one treat, you will lose control and eat anything else you can find.
    • I know that I can eat just one treat as I have done it before, I can have one and then I can choose to stop.
  • Fearing weight gain.
    • If I put on weight, it does not make me a bad person.
  • Fearing ‘falling off the wagon’ of healthy eating and putting the weight back on.
    • I can choose to eat healthily and if I ‘fall off the wagon”, I can get back on.
  • Fearing leaving the house as you do not like how you look.
    • I know that people don’t care how I look, the judgement is in my mind. I can choose to let it go.
  • Fearing looking in the mirror or having a photo taken as you do not like your body.
    • I may not be happy with some aspects of my body, but I want to have photos with friends and family so I can remember happy times.
  • Fearing eating ‘forbidden’ foods in case you put on weight.
    • No food is ‘bad’, I can eat all foods, but I know that I am able to eat treats in moderation.
It is easy to allow fears about food and weight to keep us stuck. The first step to releasing food-related fears is being willing to try.

Binge Eating Therapy

I specialise in eating disorders and have 17 years’ experience as a behaviour change and obesity prevention scientist at Cambridge University. I’ve been there and I get it, and now support people with binge eating, emotional eating, weight loss struggles, and bulimia.
I help clients discover and take charge of their hidden eating triggers and transform their relationship with food. Sessions often focus on getting freedom from constant thoughts about food and weight and escaping the cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight gain. Gain understanding about what has prevented you from recovery in the past so you can overcome that, and live life without restriction or bingeing.
I combine counselling, to understand and overcome emotional barriers, with the strategies and tools of health coaching. The combination of counselling and coaching is powerful for making lasting change.

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The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.