The Scarcity Mindset & Restrictive Eating Disorders
A scarcity mindset is something that will affect everyone with a restrictive eating disorder in some way. This is because your body is in a state of energy deficit. When you are in a state of energy deficit, your brain perceives that essential supplies of energy are low. As far as your brain is concerned, this means that other important resources are also in low supply.
To your brain, you are in a very scarce environment because if you weren’t, why wouldn’t you be restoring the energy levels it needs to function optimally?
Of course we know that with a restrictive eating disorder, it's not that food isn’t available to you. It's a restrictive eating disorder preventing your from consuming enough of it. But all your brain knows is that not enough food is coming in and so it’s obviously in short supply.
The scarcity mindset can impact on so much of your life when you have a restrictive eating disorder and over time it can create even more habits that then need to be addressed as you overcome it.
It's important to recognise the scarcity mindset, how it impacts on you and to address it but do so with self-compassion. After all, it's just your brain trying to ensure that you survive in an environment in which it perceives famine is real.
The Scarcity Mindset and Food
When it comes to food, it will come as no surprise that the scarcity mindset will impact you in significant ways. When you have a restrictive eating disorder and so by definition eat restrictive amounts to your body’s needs, leaving you in a state of energy deficit, you can’t not have a food related scarcity mindset.
The way in which the scarcity mindset with food and eating manifests for you will not be the same as for others. However, there are typical ways in which it presents for many. These include:
Ongoing food thoughts.
Putting food on a pedestal. Wanting everything you do allow yourself to eat to be as perfect as it can be and to be able to savour the precious moments you do eat the foods that your brain and body are so hungry for. This can present as:
- Ritualised eating patterns that make the eating event feel more special.
- A need to be in the same place to eat; somewhere that your brain has come to associate with much needed food intake and placed high importance on.
- Hating interruptions while you eat from other people, phone calls or anything else.
- Very rigid times of day that you eat which are very hard to alter. Your brain perceives that food is only available at these times of day and puts high priority on keeping this time free for this precious food intake.
- Feeling a high level of distress if the food you are preparing is ruined, such as if it's burnt or is too hot or too cold.
- Eating very slowly, dragging out the experience because these food events are scarce and need to be fully appreciated.
- OR, you might have the opposite experience and find that you eat very quickly. This is a brain that fears that the foods available will not be available for long and so need to be consumed quickly.
Stretching out the food supplies that you have, making them last as long as you can, even though you can easily buy more or have plenty available.
Hoarding foods, filling the cupboards, freezer or fridge.
Feelings of guilt at even the thought of food waste or throwing anything away.
Hating to see others waste food.
Not wanting to share food with other people.
Powerful urges to spend time in supermarkets, coffee shops or other food related places and be around food.
If you attempt to buy foods when you go out, experiencing habitual thoughts of wrong-doing and that you should eat the food that you have at home rather than these other items.
You might experience envy and intrigue at seeing others eat freely and abundantly or you may develop strong judgments towards people who eat unrestrictedly, perhaps considering them greedy or excessive.
There are many ways in which the scarcity mindset will present in relation to food when you have a restrictive eating disorder. These are just a few examples.
These symptoms will resolve as you eat and allow yourself all the foods that your brain is asking you for and emerge from energy deficit.
The Scarcity Mindset and Money Spending
A lot of people with restrictive eating disorders have difficulty with money spending. You might not even realise this is a key feature of the scarcity mindset (and hence the eating disorder), and just think you are very careful with money or a bit tight!
Perhaps you struggle to spend money on absolutely anything or it might be you have more difficulty when it comes to spending money on yourself or on food. You can experience anxiety, overthinking, guilt or feelings of shame when trying to spend money even when you can more than afford the items and they are very essential.
This is something that I experienced. I could put in hours of painstaking research to find the best price for a pint of milk or bottle of shampoo before finally allowing myself to begrudgingly buy it. If I found something that was at a discounted price, I would buy it in bulk, hoarding supplies, believing that I had to stock up because it might never be this price again.
Perhaps you can relate to this. Maybe you are an expert at finding the supermarket discounts and end of the day mark-downs. Perhaps your family even tease you, as mine did, that you won’t buy anything at full price, without realising that this little quirk you have is a symptom of a starved brain.
Money spending can be extremely hard for people in a scarcity mindset and it's easy to joke about it but it can have a detrimental impact on your life. Even when you can more than afford all the material items and services that you need or want, the ability to spend that money can feel impossible. This can become very life limiting when you consider all the ways in which money needs to be spent in order to have a fulfilling life. Taking a trip somewhere or going to visit friends and family means you need to spend money to travel, which can be something you find your brain is also highly resistant to. This discomfort results in your avoidance of going at all. Social activities can be difficult anyway for people with restrictive eating disorders but even more so when you experience guilt at the thought of having to pay for things when you are out, such as drinks or entry perhaps to a theatre or museum.
Another way that the scarcity mindset will possibly impact you in relation to money is when it comes to earning and saving. Many with restrictive eating disorders who do work will put in extra hours and think about their earnings and whether they are enough to a greater degree than others. Most are also excellent at saving any money they can. Of course, this is an important life skill to an extent. Money is important for our current ability to live and it's good to have some savings for the future but if these concerns and this saving mentality becomes obsessive or detrimental to your ability to live with enough comfort and freedom now, it needs to be addressed.
When it comes to money, despite knowing rationally that you have enough, you might find that you obsess over money and whether to spend it or not more than is normal or healthy. You can have ruminating thoughts around other things too, such as heating resources, fuel in the car or how many teabags you are using. This takes your attention from things in life that are actually pleasurable. These constant thoughts will improve as you eat, restore, get out of energy deficit and reprogram your brain. Use it as additional motivation to really overcome the eating disorder.
Kleptomania is the medical term for compulsive stealing. This is always a difficult topic because no one wants to admit to stealing but it’s important to cover as I believe it ties into the scarcity mindset.
When people have kleptomania they can feel compelled to steal or shoplift, even when they can easily afford the items they take or don’t need them. Afterwards they can experience guilt, remorse and shame. Studies have found that that there is a strong correlation with people who experience kleptomania and who have a diagnosis of a restrictive eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia (1). The authors of one study speculate that it results from a compulsive urge to steal, in the same way other eating disordered behaviours are compulsive. Perhaps this is the case but in all likelihood, stealing starts as a result of their scarcity mindset.
When your brain perceives that there are very few resources in your environment or you can't afford to buy essentials, it's understandable that in trying to fight for survival, it will drive you to take what you can. If stealing starts in this way, it can be highly rewarding as it triggers a high dopamine release and over time make these behaviours compulsive.
If you have experience of having felt compelled to steal or shoplift during the time you have had a restrictive eating disorder, recognise it as a symptom of the scarcity mindset and a brain doing all it can to fight for survival. Remove feelings of guilt and shame from your past actions because you cannot change the past. Those who do experience kleptomania within a restrictive eating disorder largely find the urges to steal subside completely as they emerge from energy deficit. Therefore, the best way to overcome it is to eat, rest, gain weight and get out of the energy deficit state you are in. In the meantime, recognise your patterns if you do have urges to steal or shoplift. Avoid any typical habits or routines that lead to you taking something without paying. Shop in different stores because environments can be a trigger to old behaviours. Go shopping with other people so you are less likely to be tempted and if the urge arises when you are in a shop, recognise it and remove yourself from the setting.
If you tend to steal in other situations then set up similar obstacles to address it while you are still overcoming the eating disorder and scarcity mindset.
The Scarcity Mindset and Time
One aspect of your life which you might not have thought about before in relation to the impact the scarcity mindset has on you, is in relation to time. This is the perception or belief that time is always in short supply and everything has to be done as a priority, leaving you feeling pressured, often overwhelmed and constantly on the go.
With a scarcity mindset created by food deprivation, it might seem odd that it would also stretch over to something like time. However, time is another precious and irreplaceable resource that we have. Therefore, your brain will put a high importance on it and perceive it to potentially be in short supply because other resources are. Plus when your brain does perceive food to be limited, it will create an urgent drive to finish the things that you are doing because it wants you to put your attention back to seeking food and eating.
A time scarcity mindset will commonly present in the following ways:
Constantly feeling that time is lacking.
Always being on the go but still feeling as if there is so much to do.
Feeling pressured by the things you perceive that you need to do and a sense of urgency that they need to be done now, even if they are of little importance.
Over-scheduling yourself because you perceive that time will otherwise run out.
Rarely switching off each day and being unable to relax.
A belief that if you do slow down, things won’t get done and that that would matter.
Guilt at the thought of letting others down if you didn’t do the things you promise or that they have come to depend on you for.
Putting off things you want to do for things you feel you have to do, keeping you overly focused on the here and now and not things that matter for your future.
Ultimately frustrated each day that the things that you want to be able to focus on for you have been pushed back for the sake of being busy in other, less meaningful ways.
A time scarcity mindset will improve, at least in part, as you overcome the eating disorder. But it's also something you need to focus on and address throughout the recovery process. Your priority each and every day needs to be on doing what you need to do to overcome the eating disorder fully and finally. That should be the most pressing and important thing in your life because without it, everything else will always be heavily shadowed. When you perceive time to be lacking, apply that sense of urgency to getting the eating disorder out of your life.
Tips to Address the Scarcity Mindset
You know then that you have a scarcity mindset and that it's significantly impacting on your thoughts and behaviours. It has created compulsions above and beyond those directly created by the eating disorder and habitual ways of thinking. It stops you living as freely as you know you could and it contributes to your heightened levels of anxiety, low mood and stress. So how do you address it?
To an extent, the scarcity mindset will largely resolve as you abstain from the eating disorder, stop chasing energy deficit and pursue energy surplus instead. This will naturally show your brain that you are no longer in an environment of scarcity. Your brain will perceive that food is available (hurrah!) and so you don’t have to stretch out or be overly focused on meagre resources. You will naturally feel much more relaxed about so many things, including food, money and time. This will leave you more laid back and able to live in ways you can’t imagine now.
There will however also be some work to do around the scarcity thoughts and behaviours you developed which have become compulsive and habitual. You will need to address these head on so that, in the same way as you do with the eating disorder behaviours, you can unwire the old habits and wire in new brain pathways and circuits pursuing thoughts and behaviours that you want. The best way to do this is just the same as with all the other compulsive habits that you want to remove from your life. You stop them as much as possible. You need your brain to believe that nothing is scarce now so you can leave this scarcity mindset behind and move towards an abundance mindset instead.
You have lived restrictively in so many ways for so long, it's now time to live abundantly for a while. Push to the other extreme because it's the quickest and most effective way to get through this.
Let your brain learn that spending money is actually absolutely fine. Look at your finances with honesty. Consider what you actually can afford to spend each week or month on food and non food related items. Set yourself minimum spend amounts and give yourself full permission to spend that money. View this not as wasteful and unnecessary but the way to overcome the eating disorder in full, rewiring the scarcity mindset that currently leaves you living a limited life. This is a way to invest in your ability to have a real and positive future. When you do buy yourself something that you wouldn’t usually let yourself, initial feelings of guilt and regret or shame will come up because they have been automatic and powerful ways your brain has used to stop you spending money and living freely for a long time. Expect these feelings to come and choose not to engage in them. Then deliberately allow yourself to feel proud that you are doing the best thing for your future life and your ability to give back to the world in more meaningful ways than you ever can with an eating disorder constraining you.
If you have had a habit in the past of returning items after purchase because feelings of guilt kicked in, make yourself a black and white rule that not only will you buy yourself new things but you will not return them for a refund. Remove labels from items you buy as soon as you take them home and throw those labels away. Make use of whatever you have bought immediately. Don’t leave it in a cupboard or wardrobe for a special occasion or rainy day.
For those of you who are the supermarket discount shoppers and end of day bargain hunters, push yourself to only buy foods for a while that are full price to allow your brain to learn that it is ok to buy thing even when they are not on offer.
Where you always buy the economy goods, whether that is food, cosmetics or clothes, allow yourself to buy products at the more luxury end of the range instead.
If you are someone who rarely visits the hairdresser or barber because of guilt over spending, make yourself regularly visit those who are not the cheapest but who offer a quality service. Perhaps you have always wanted your nails done or to visit a reflexologist but never allowed yourself. Now is the time!
The energy savers amongst you who live in poorly heated homes, wearing three jumpers and a coat rather than using the heating because of the cost need to start to keep your homes warm, again being honest with yourself about what you actually can afford.
When you have had a tendency to hoard food or non-food supplies, use up the items you have stockpiled and make a rule for yourself that you can only buy enough supplies for one, maximum two weeks at a time.
And when it comes to time scarcity, make time to relax something that is a priority in your day. Look at all these things you feel so compelled to keep busy doing and as I said before, prioritise your time to overcoming the eating disorder and doing what you need to do for that. As you know, learning to rest for this is crucial. This means being able to say no to demands on your time and to realise that so many of the things that you keep busy doing at the moment really can just be left or given to someone else to do.
The scarcity mindset is real and powerful. It will impact all aspects of your life. It will add to how difficult your life is and the detrimental impact the eating disorder has on it. You need to be aware of how the scarcity mindset impacts you and which parts of your life that you might have attributed to being your little quirks are actually symptoms of your brain perceiving scarcity. Then you need to address it. This will happen in part by abstaining from all the behaviours that drive energy deficit but you also need to abstain from the things in your life that stem from a scarcity mindset, aiming for abundance for a time as you do so.
(1) Grant JE, Chamberlain SR. Symptom severity and its clinical correlates in kleptomania. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2018 May;30(2):97-101. PMID: 29697710; PMCID: PMC5935224.
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