Countless women and men fear food. “Just one bite” might not end with one bite; for some of us, it may spiral out of control. Food taunts us to want it and to hate ourselves for having it, or so it seems. Fear of food infiltrates our relationships, thoughts and faith in ourselves.
I was afraid of food. I was trapped in a cycle of trying to control my fear and I couldn’t figure out how to break free. The cycle started with my planning what I would eat and when. When I planned I felt confident and in control, even elated. Life was manageable and I was going somewhere! The scale proved it. My clothes showed it, too.
Riding my bike or walking long distances made up for the times when I couldn’t follow the rules of my plan. I felt in control — some of the time at least. I broke the rules much more often than I kept them. The battle between me and food then turned more serious. My out-of-control side threatened, lurked, goaded me to eat this or that, just one more bite, just one more time.
The more I feared food, the less faith I had in myself. Could I be trusted? Could I commit to basic agreements I’d made with myself? Could I trust my body? My appetite? My thoughts?
Getting Beyond Fear of Food
Recovery from any addictive, compulsive or self-harming behavior, including an unhealthy relationship with food, is also recovery from fear. Fear of not having access to that substance or behavior. Fear of losing control. Fear of ending the behavior forever. This in particular — that feeling of never having that “drug” again — can escalate unhealthy behavior. It’s our terror that forces us to think, Do it now, this one last time!
When I finally understood that there was a good reason why my unhealthy behavior around food had developed, I could begin to show kindness toward myself. These behaviors helped me survive. They allowed me navigate painful experiences earlier in my life, when I was too young to come up with more elegant strategies. And when I realized that disordered eating had actually changed my healthy brain chemistry into a fearful one — fear of food, people, change and emotions — I felt relief. After all, if I had the ability to disturb my own brain patterns, I could also improve them!
So I set about finding faith in my body. I started to stretch on my own and intently focus on each slow movement. This practice — which I later learned was in fact yoga — allowed me to express body-centered kindness to myself. It was a welcome respite from my body-centered self-hatred. One self-nurturing moment at a time, I became less frightened and had inklings of faith in myself. Yoga saved my life.
While initially I was too terrified to radically adjust my food behavior, even from the earliest days of this new phase of self-care I considered ways to nurture myself. I arranged my sleep schedule to be more restorative by going to bed at 10 p.m. nightly and waking around 5:30 to divert my mind’s tendency to start feeling anxious. I drank water when I awoke and every hour throughout the day. I learned to mindfully pause. For example, when I felt fear arise, I would drink my water and remember with each sip that I mattered enough to myself to hydrate.
And with each yoga practice, my body revealed non-food cravings: for understanding, kindness, vitality, communion with nature. I stopped compulsively exercising or restricting food as a form of self-punishment. Slowly, my inner voice moved from shame to self-appreciation. I learned to listen to, respect and skillfully feed all my “hungers.” Over time, faith — in myself, in my recovery and in the knowledge that I could change — emerged.
As a yoga therapist, I know well the power that yoga has to reduce anxiety and depression, soothe an exhausted nervous system and help us metabolize life events, emotions, thoughts and stress. It allows us to move away from the self-harm, shame, fear, isolation and despair that mark our addictions toward more self-respect, forgiveness, resilience and joy.