Hack your Physiology to Reduce Anxiety and Overcome a Fear Response in Eating Disorder Recovery
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
You are in recovery from an eating disorder and you have made the decision that today is the day that you are going to jump out the plane and go to a restaurant, order the most terrifying thing on the menu and eat every last morsel of it.
You feel determined and ready. You feel committed. You know where you are going to go and what you are going to order...
Lunchtime comes around and you are starting to feel a little anxious but you are still focused on your plan and head out to the restaurant, batting away any thoughts trying to deter you from your course of action.
You enter the restaurant...
Suddenly, before you know what has happened, you have realised with absolute certainty that this is the worse idea ever, with powerful and rational seeming reasons for why you need to leave and go home to eat the food you have there. You have bolted for the exit before anyone else can say anything, or if anyone does try to persuade you to stay, you flare at them in anger and annoyance.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Perhaps, you need to alter the setting or the challenge itself in eating disorder recovery, but I am sure anyone who has an eating disorder can relate to the rapid and powerful fear response that can surge over them when trying to conquer eating disorder related fears.
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about our rational and emotional brains being at war with each other in recovery...
Rationally you might decide to eat a certain food and come up with all the reasons why this is an incredibly excellent idea to help you recover (and this processing happens in your pre-frontal cortex or 'rational brain'). Then when the time comes, before you know it, you have fled from or fought your way out the situation, as your amygdala, within your limbic system brain region hijacks your actions and keeps you from your recovery path.
What then can you do when that powerful fear response starts to take over your mind, to prevent the eating disorder (or fear) winning each time you try to challenge it?
As you enter a fight or flight fear response, your brain triggers the release of powerful chemicals. Adrenaline and noradrenaline flood the brain and body, causing your heart and breathing rates to speed up, the blood to flow away from your skin surface and digestive system and towards your main muscle groups (so you are ready to run) and you are left feeling trembly, clammy and agitated.
When you have faced a strong fear situation in eating disorder recovery, this physical state is likely to be one you are familiar with.
If then we return to the scenario I began this post with, where you have entered the restaurant to order and enjoy the meal that terrifies you, with a certain knowledge that it is going to be positive for your recovery only to find that your fight or flight reaction kicks in, I want to talk through some steps that might help...
As you start to feel your heart rate speed up and your breathing quicken or notice you really want to move about more (feeling physically very agitated) and realise you are about to exit the building, trying to hack your physiology might just help you to reduce your anxiety, ride the fear and proceed in a calmer state.
The first thing to do as you notice the anxiety and fear increase is just stop for a minute.
No need to apply any thought. Just stop. Don't run from the 'recovery scene' or proceed.
Just stop and take a moment to try the steps below to adjust your physiology and shift your body out of the fear based fight and flight, stress mode and into a calmer body and (hopefully) back into a more rational and calmer state of mind.
Steps to Take to Hack your Physiology and Overcome a Fear Reaction
Adjust your visual field
When in a stressed or anxious state, as well as your heart rate and breathing increasing, preparing your body to fly or fight, your visual field also changes. When you are highly anxious, your field of vision narrows and focuses on a single location, so you become less aware of all your surroundings and much more focused.
In order to return to a calmer body state, stop and deliberately widen your field of vision. Imagine that your vision is on panoramic mode on your camera... If you are able to, look at the horizon (into the general distance) and without moving your gaze, just bring in to your attention what is on the sides, above and below you. This is one step that can quickly help to turn off your stress response.
Focus on your breathing, using 'physiological sighs'
Yes, I know you have been told before 'to breathe' when you are feeling stressed and anxious, but hear me out on this one, because you might not know about this little breathing hack!
Dr Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist based in the US and he has recently spoken a lot about research that has come out into something called 'physiological sighs' being an excellent tool when we need to calm ourselves down fast.
Physiological sighs are two quick inhalations followed by a slower exhalation. If you have ever seen a child crying then you will see them do this as they reach a peak and start to calm down (you probably have experience of doing it automatically yourself).
Two or three deliberate physiological sighs are thought to be one of the fastest ways to return the body to 'normal' from a stressed and anxious state - worth a try!
Aim to relax your body and be still
As I described above, when you enter the fear response and adrenaline is flying about your system, blood flows to your main muscles in your arms and legs and you become fidgety or shaky, with strong urges to be physically moving.
Therefore, while also focusing on your vision and breathing (as above), deliberately try to bring your body to stillness and relax your muscles. If you can find somewhere to sit down and relax into the seat (being aware of the feel of the seat beneath you). In doing so, you can trick your brain into understanding that the need to run to escape or be pumped up to fight is not valid, as despite being still, the perceived immediate threat is not causing you any harm, enabling the brain to feel safe enough to switch out of fear mode.
Using these three simple hacks when in a recovery situation that is causing your fear reaction to kick in and hijack yet another 'recovery challenge' attempt can be enough to pull your body and mind out of automatic fight, flight, not able to apply rational thought mode and back into a space of feeling relaxed and safe enough to re-evaluate your situation, remember what you are doing and why and proceed with a renewed focus.
Once you are in a physical and mental space again in which you are not bolting for the nearest exit, remind yourself what you are doing and why (because you don't want to stay sick forever) and then proceed with the activity that created that fear response in the first place.
Another little trick that you might want to try at this point is to use some of that adrenaline that is still pumping through your veins in a positive way.
Over on my Recovering Nomad blog (my original recovery website), I wrote a post about how to turn fear into excitement in eating disorder recovery... check it out if you haven't already! Basically though, as the chemicals released in a fear response are essentially the same as those that are released when we are super excited about something and the only difference between these two events is our interpretation of that aroused physical state, there is a technique we can try called, 'anxiety reappraisal'. The idea of anxiety reappraisal is to use the arousal that the anxiety response triggered (the nervous energy) and 'reappraise' it into excitement.
In the scenario in this blog post then, once you have managed to calm yourself sufficiently to stay in the restaurant, although you will be in a calmer state than the one in which you were ready to attack anyone expecting you to stay and eat, you are likely to still be a little jittery and anxious. Now it is time to reappraise those physical sensations of anxiety and turn it into, not fear, but excitement.
Get pumped up about the fact you are in the restaurant about to kick that eating disorder where it hurts the most and as hard as you can! Tell yourself that you are doing this, you are recovering and you are ready to attack, not the people trying to get you to eat, but the illness instead!! Order that huge meal you planned with glee and excitement and decide to enjoy every last bite (because you can).
From personal experience too, I wouldn't mind betting that when you do get through and eat the meal you had set out to, you will then experience a true high (caused by a cocktail of chemicals, including endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine) which will make you feel truly incredible and believe it or not, you might just find you want more of that great feeling and feel ready to take on another terrifying challenge straight away. If that urge does hit then you have to keep going for the sake of your recovery and future life!
I hope something in this post has been helpful to you... please let me know how you get on!
I coach people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence; enabling them to find freedom in a world obsessed with diets.
If you do want to know more about my services, please explore my website and contact me.
**This post is a transcript of a podcast episode on my Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast' series so if you prefer to listen than read, you will find it with many other episodes on any mainstream podcast provider or on the podcast page of this website!**