The Pendulum-Swing Effect in Eating Disorder Recovery
Overcoming an eating disorder is comparable to being on a pendulum-swing. It can feel like you are swinging from one extreme to another in all kinds of ways whereby the pendulum is tightly pulled by the eating disorder in one direction with restrictive eating, compensatory behaviours and the build up of energy deficit that once released can swing rapidly to the other extreme before ultimately settling at a middle ground of what might be considered 'homeostasis' or an eating disorder-free and healthy normality.
To help you understand what I am trying to describe, consider the above image of a pendulum effect. When your experiences of overcoming an eating disorder are making you feel highly anxious because you feel like you are going to the other 'extreme', you can use this to reassure yourself that the pendulum effect is very normal. If you go with it, letting yourself swing to what might feel like 'recovery extremes' then all will be good and you (like so many others have) will find your unique natural middle point of eating disorder-free life.
Below is a description of each extreme to the pendulum's swing in relation to the eating disorder and what it means to find your middle ground of 'normality' and freedom.
1 — The Eating Disorder Pulls You to the Far Left of Centre
If the space where the pendulum is hanging peacefully in the centre(3) can be considered to be 'homeostasis'—meaning a state of mental, physical and emotional stability with very little conscious effort or influence needed to maintain it—then the pendulum being held to the far left of centre(1) is the pull of the eating disorder.
When the eating disorder is pulling you on the pendulum to the far left, you will experience some or all of the following:
Compulsive exercise & movement
Compensatory behaviours that are also compulsive
A physical state of semi-starvation & energy deficit at a weight below your set point (which can be at any BMI if you are below your genetic set point range)
Feeling emotionally numb
Little experience of joy or pleasure in life
Feeling disconnected from yourself and/or others
Being prone to rigidity in behaviours / hard to break routines, rituals or a need for 'control'
Feeling physically cold
A constant drive to be 'doing', finding empty time and space hard to tolerate
A false sense of 'energy'
Food obsession with related thoughts and behaviours (even though you are not eating sufficient amounts)
I am sure that if you have a restrictive eating disorder then you can relate to many of the things on this list and perhaps can begin to recognise how much the eating disorder is pulling you from what could be your happy 'middle ground' at the moment.
When you make the brave decision that you are done with the eating disorder and you are going to do all you can to get it out of your life and bash it hard, using abstinence or moderation, then as you start to eat more and give up some of the other behaviours, changing routines and rigid habits as you do, it can feel like your pendulum suddenly swings rapidly, not to centre as you might have liked, but to the far right of that happy middle ground. And this is when the process to overcome an eating disorder can feel terrifying and you might think that you have 'lost control', particularly if you weren't expecting some of the changes that can rapidly set in when the eating disorder is losing its control of you.
2 — The Pendulum Swings Rapidly the Other Way When You Begin to Abstain from the Eating Disorder
Once you begin to eat a bit more, rest more and stop some of the other eating disordered behaviours, it can feel that the pendulum the eating disorder was holding to the far left(1) has suddenly swung rapidly to the far right of centre(2). This can involve:
High hunger beyond levels that you have recognised before, leading to excessive urges to eat. This can involve actual binges or 'extreme hunger' driving you to want to eat up to 10,000 calories or more a day. This is a normal physiological response to semi-starvation and energy deficit that you should listen and respond to but it can feel alarming when you are going through it.
Exhaustion, body pains and other symptoms. When pulled by the eating disorder to the left of centre, you can feel as if you have high energy and even few physical ailments but when you let the eating disorder go and begin to eat and rest more, a wall of exhaustion can hit, alongside other physical aches, pains and symptoms. This is normal and does settle but can reinforce thoughts that you are doing 'something wrong'. Listen to the symptoms and allow complete rest so that you can heal physically and mentally.
Weight gain which can be uncomfortable, especially if you held a belief that you are 'scared of weight gain' and this was maintaining the eating disorder.
Emerging from energy deficit by firstly going into 'fat overshoot' which is necessary for your body to fully heal, repair and restore to ultimately find energy balance.
Extremes of emotions—highs and lows. There can be exhilaration at being 'allowed' to eat and rest again and a return of positive emotions and the ability to experience genuine laughter once more as you emerge from energy deficit and let the addiction go. But there can also be times of real low lows, to the point of depression symptoms for some, high levels of anxiety and agitation (see the earlier post on dopamine balance to also understand more on this). These emotional extremes can be even harder to manage when you have been so used to living in relative numbness for a long time.
Small things become overwhelming and the process to overcome the eating disorder can be mentally exhausting to the point that things you did with ease during the eating disorder, such as working or academic pursuits, feels much harder to focus on or maintain. This is a normal response in the short term to a brain that needs a lot of mental energy and focus to reprogram from the eating disorder and build new neural pathways and networks (often referred to as rewiring).
Everything involved in overcoming the eating disorder—eating more, resting, giving up other rituals and habits, as well as gaining weight—can feel chaotic, overwhelming and 'wrong'. Suddenly your tightly 'controlled' and routine driven life that felt 'safe' is now feeling messy and out of control, but hold on because the truth is, this is YOU finally gaining control!
With the process to overcome the eating disorder, you will have started at the extreme left of centre in a space that the eating disorder has held you for an extensive period of time and when you started to let the eating disorder go, that pendulum has now rapidly swung you in the complete opposite direction so that you find yourself to the far right of that middle ground. So, what do you do now?
Well, now is the time to hold on. Stay to the right of that central point as long as you need to. Eat to the high hunger, no matter how high it goes, rest to address all the exhaustion and let the compulsive behaviours and need to control your eating and your body weight go. Allow your body to heal, restore and repair, aiming for overshoot and emerging fully and completely from energy deficit. Feel the emotions that arise and learn to not run from them but sit with and process them.
Let it feel messy. Let it BE messy!
This is all absolutely normal and ok. This is you getting your life back, reclaiming your control from the eating disorder and healing. Nothing good comes without making a bit of mess in the process!
When your body and brain are ready, your pendulum will naturally find that middle ground without you needing to do anything other than keep tuning into your natural body signals and responding. You will then reach the space of whatever homeostasis and equilibrium looks like for you.
3 — When Your Pendulum Finds The Middle Ground
As you finally emerge from energy deficit, having reprogrammed your brain from the eating disorder in the process, you will find that your body, hunger, thoughts, behaviours, emotions and energy balance all come to settle in the middle space of what might be considered your 'normality'. This is when:
Hunger cues will become reliable and at a level that is good but not extreme to either end of the hunger spectrum, as you naturally now are able to recognise your hunger signs and respond without judgment or overthinking.
The settling hunger enables you to eat freely, happily and securely, enjoying food without guilt, shame or regret and with pleasure to meet all your hunger at a level at which you feel satisfied. You no longer feel that you are depriving yourself or that you are 'overeating'.
Your energy levels normalise. You find you are able to rest whenever you want to and that you can move your body for pleasure when you want to but not because of any compulsions to do so.
Your body achieves a state of energy balance. You are finally fully out of energy deficit and you have fully restored your fat and lean tissue stores to the level that your brain and body recognise as necessary to be safely at your genetic set point level.
Your body weight, shape and size settle at a level that is consistent and that you need to make no conscious effort to maintain - the level that is right for you and optimal for your mental and physical health.
Your mood becomes a lot more stable with fewer lows and much less anxiety.
You become able to experience pleasure from the small things in life. You are able to experience genuine belly laughs, laugh until you cry, feel more connected to others, yourself and the world than you can remember having been before and feel grateful for it all.
Overall, you become able to feel and experience life's ups and downs in ways that feel remarkable and you feel more human for it!
Life feels more possible than ever before and you feel more able to live authentically to your true wants and needs than most people ever can.
Overcoming an eating disorder can necessitate allowing yourself to ride that pendulum swing from one extreme within the eating disorder to the other extreme for a while in order to naturally find the middle ground. Sometimes, with an eating disorder or any form of addiction, we can only gain perspective on how we were living and how 'disordered' it was when we have removed ourself from that way of being in an extreme way, such as full abstinence, for a necessary period of time and that perspective gained can then be very valuable to motivate us to continue on the path of giving the disorder and addictive behaviours up in full, persisting until that middle ground of eating disorder and addiction free life is realised.
It feels like a crazy ride when you are on the pendulum swing of finding freedom from the eating disorder but hold on tight and ride on through as it will be worth it.
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