Overcoming an eating problem? 10 ways therapy can help
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Harriet Frew
4th September, 20150 Comments
Maybe you feel a bit resigned about change. You can’t really remember a time when you were able to just go about your daily life without the constant analysis and anxiety about eating and your body shape. Perhaps you have tried to seek out help before, but it didn’t really work out and you feel reluctant to venture down this path again. Does therapy even work anyway? Maybe you hold many fears about what it might involve. Will an uncontrollable surge of emotion spring forth which feels unmanageable to deal with? Perhaps, as much as you dislike your eating problem, it might feel quite safe and familiar. Stepping off this secure island to explore new and unchartered territory might feel very daunting indeed.
Ten ways that therapy can help:
1. A safe place. Therapy can provide a safe, supportive and confidential space where you can begin to connect with your inner world. You can begin to explore how you really feel and in doing this, start to gain self-awareness. Sometimes in life, even with the people we love dearly, it can feel very unsafe to talk and be fully open. Particularly with an eating problem, there can be much shame and secrecy involved in behaviours associated with this. This is where the counselling relationship can offer something different. Finding a counsellor who is relatable and you can be open with, can be a very new and powerful experience.
2. Motivation. If you have an eating problem, you will likely feel ambivalent about change. In the short-term; restriction, dieting, bingeing, over-eating and body obsession can be effective coping mechanisms, for example, in helping to distract from life and manage emotions. As the eating problem helps you cope in part, you might feel extremely attached to it. It may also have become part of you and your identity to some extent; "This is what I do". Working to understanding this from a psychological perspective can really support you in increasing your motivation for change and help you in beginning to identify new strategies for coping.
3. Values. When you have an eating problem, you have often become quite detached or separated from your core values. Inadvertently, the eating problem may have led you down a path of secrecy and disconnect from the people you love. You may feel that you have lost sight and interest in the things that used to matter to you. You might lack the energy or focus to move your life in a direction that feels valuable to you. Therapy can help you to begin to recognise how you have wandered off track and support you in taking steps back to your true self.
4. The past. You may well have experienced life events or relationships that have played a contributory role in the development of your eating problem. It is unusual that there is one specific cause; instead, it is often a delicate interplay of genetics; environment and situational triggers. It can be a valuable process to explore and begin to understand the past as part of the journey of therapy. As you gain better self-awareness and understanding, you are able to make more conscious choices going forward. Without this awareness, it is easy to unconsciously repeat unhelpful patterns which can keep you trapped.
5. Nutrition. If you are under-eating, you are likely to be feeling depressed, cold, withdrawn and lacking in energy. If you are oscillating between dieting and bingeing, you are possibly on a blood sugar rollercoaster and mood swings might well be inevitable outcome of this. Intensely focusing on food on a daily basis, you may well have become somewhat of an expert in nutrition, however sometimes this knowledge may be put into action to an extreme which may now have questionable health benefits. It might also be unrealistic to maintain sustainably and be unintentionally fuelling the eating problem to some extent. Therapy can support you in giving your body balanced nutrition and help in stabilising mood.
6. Emotions. It is likely that you might use food to help manage your emotions. Restricting can often be a way of blocking off from emotions and distracting from them. Bingeing can too allow a way of dissociating from emotions and escaping. Therapy can support you in working with your emotional world to your benefit. You can begin to tune in, name and experience your emotions safely. You can also find new and constructive coping strategies as outlets for your feelings, rather than using food.
7. Thinking. With over 60,000 thoughts a day whizzing around your head, you can see quickly see the impact that negative thinking might have; "I’m too fat" or "I’m not good enough". As you begin to tune into your thoughts and increase self-awareness. Then with support, you can learn to constructively challenge unhelpful thinking and also to accept your thoughts with less judgement and reaction. As you gain mastery in this, it has the potential to significantly transform how you feel, rather than being at the mercy of the chatter in your head.
8. Body image. If you have an eating problem, you may well be preoccupied with your body shape and size. Without knowing it, you might be amplifying this problem daily through regular weighing; body checking or obsessive comparisons with others. Therapy can help you create a kinder and more accepting dialogue with your body. You can learn to place less emphasis on the aesthetics of your body as a barometer of your self-worth.
9. Self-esteem. It is probable that you may be trying to feel better about yourself through trying to control food and your body. Maybe deep down, you don’t feel very good or worthy enough. The eating problem may well have become a way of trying to feel better. You might recognise that this doesn’t really work and in fact creates more problems, but feel powerless to stop it. Therapy can support you in building a more solid self-esteem, where you can be more accepting and compassionate towards yourself.
10. Sustainable change. For therapy to be effective for the long-term, it is essential that you start to feel some mastery and confidence in becoming your own therapist. It is about learning to fall off the horse sometimes, but feeling that you have the tools to get back on and keep going. Relapses at times can be inevitable, but with different ways of coping, they need only be short-lived.
It is often a brave and courageous step to reach out for help, and it is understandable that there might be many fears in doing so. However, there is much to be gained from therapy. Taking the step to ask for help can be an incredibly valuable one and possibly life-changing. You don’t have to do it all on your own.
About the author
Harriet Frew is a counsellor, blogger, writer and enthusiast in supporting people with eating disorders. She has worked in the NHS; private practice and in the voluntary sector; working in the field since 1999. Harriet now works privately in Cambridge and London.
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