I have this brilliant client. Let’s call her Megan. Megan is brilliant. She comes in and waxes poetic about politics, philosophy, relationships, ethics, medicine… Really anything. She has a lot on her mind and needs to talk through it. I love to listen to her and I love to hear her thoughts and her ideas on life and the world around her. But Megan’s big brain tortures her. It keeps her awake at night. It keeps her stuck and paralyzed and it keeps her from moving forward in life. And there are some weeks, after months and months of being free of eating disorder symptoms that she comes in and says, “I spent the last 48 hours bingeing and purging and I can’t stop.”
I have several Megans in my practice. In fact I have been having Megans for years. These Megans have helped me come to a very important conclusion, which is that eating disorders help calm down an overactive brain. I continue to see brilliant people with active minds using food to help them stop thinking. Eating disorders come in handy that way. If you are thinking too much, bingeing can just shut it down. If you are thinking too much, you can go on a diet and redirect all of your stress into working out and losing weight and restricting and bingeing. It’s a way to distract, it’s a way to shut down. And it’s common.
Do you ever go on a diet because you just have so much going on in your world? In your brain? Like maybe work is making you crazy, your relationship is not working or you don’t have a relationship, your kiddo’s IEP is a mess, your dog has diabetes and you can’t afford his insulin, the theoretical framework of your dissertation just isn’t working, your husband’s ex-wife is sending you death threats, you got fired, you can’t find a job, you can’t pay for diapers, your wife is having an affair… and you just want to stop thinking about life… so you go on a diet. Or maybe none of these things are happening. Maybe you just can’t shut your overactive brain off, so you go on a diet and you put all of your energy into it. And then you start bingeing. And maybe then you start purging. And then what happens? Then you have to go back into treatment and your whole life is about treatment and nothing else matters for awhile. Eating disorders and eating disorder recovery become coping mechanisms, ways to not have to think anymore when thinking is so torturous.
So when life gets too much and all you want to do is dive into a binge episode or run on the treadmill to avoid food and your feelings, what else can you do?
You can send yourself love and compassion, you can talk to people about what’s going on in your mind. You can use guided meditations to calm your brain and its meanderings. But mostly you can try to remind yourself that your thoughts are just thoughts and you don’t have to be afraid of them. Just electric impulses that pass through you and you don’t have to follow them down the rabbit hole. Even thoughts about bingeing, purging or dieting. It is possible to teach your brain not to follow certain thoughts that don’t serve you and not to feel controlled by them. In the 5 week program we use cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness techniques and neuroplasticity to learn how to take control of the thoughts that feel overwhelming. A quick CBT trick is to ask yourself “is that thought objectively real or true? how do I know it’s true? Is there another possible truth? If there were another possible truth that I could think of that would feel better in my body, what would it be?” Then write that down and think about what that would be like. Just the mechanism of finding the possibility to change thoughts can help you to calm the overwhelming feelings.