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Fear, food, and the need for control

Posted May 29 2012 11:56pm
A recent blog post I stumbled across talked about the relationship between phobias and the need for control . One of the key components of a phobia is a fear of loss of control. What if I'm stuck in a really small space and I can't get out? Or, for me in my anorexic days, what if I don't know exactly what's in my food? What if I don't know how many calories it contains? What if I don't do the exact same exercises in the exact same order?

"Control" was a qualitative feeling, yes, but I turned it into a quantitative one: pounds, calories, minutes, and miles. What it took me nearly a decade to connect was that this search for control was actually very closely linked to a search for relief from fear. If I could get everything "perfect" with regards to weight and food and exercise, then I felt that everything in life would be okay.

Except that perfection is a myth, and I never got things exactly right. I couldn't. That didn't stop me from trying.

Saying that an eating disorder is "about" control is, to me, a dramatic over-simplification. Control is an underlying theme . It's a major player. But it's not all that an eating disorder is about. The eating disorder didn't start as a search for something I could control. It started as a way to try and feel better. As I became more deranged and malnourished, the fear kicked in. With the fear came the need for control.

The anxiety was existential. It was related to food; it was related to everything. Life itself overwhelmed me and I couldn't cope. The eating disorder behaviors had both a psychological effect and a neurochemical effect. Not eating turned down the anxiety chemicals, at least short term. And the behaviors gave me the illusion that I was in control of my life.

The more entrenched I became in my disorder, the crazier my life got. This led me to search even harder for the fleeting sense of control that the ED behaviors brought me. A sense of control reduces stress. I remember listening to a lecture by biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress, and he said that when rats got a warning before they got an electric shock, their stress went down. The warning- in this case a flashing light- gave the rats a sense of control. Researchers have also found that stress makes us more vulnerable to superstitious beliefs .

One of the things that consistently stresses people out is not feeling in control. When we're not in control, we use elaborate mental gymnastics to try and convince ourselves that we are in control, or keep ourselves from doing something where we might lose control. A lot of these are superstitious beliefs: if I exercise for XX minutes, then everything will be okay. I will be in control, I won't gain weight, and everything will be just fine. They become mantras that we repeat, over and over and over. Those beliefs were how I organized my life.

Just as exposure to the feared situation or object is crucial to the treatment of phobias and panic disorder, exposure to ED-related situations is also crucial. Only by facing our fears can we learn that control is overrated. Ironically, by temporarily relinquishing control of my eating, I was able to make huge strides forward in recovery.

So yes, eating disorders are about control, but don't stop there. They're also about fear, anxiety, stress, nutrition, and lots of other things, too. You can't tie an eating disorder up with a neat little bow and explain them with a simple word like "control." The only simple way to explain an eating disorder is to say "It's complicated."
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