Facing Fears


     I want to share a personal experience I’ve had recently – which isn’t food related, but which I thought had implications for those with eating disorders. It has to do with overcoming a fear, and since those struggling with bulimia/BED/anorexia/EDNOS often have fears around food or fear giving up their habits, I thought this experience of mine might be helpful to someone in some way.

     For about 5 years, I was afraid of driving on expressways (interstates/freeways… whatever you may call them). I rarely drove on expressways; and by rarely, I mean maybe twice a year. I had no problem riding with someone else driving, but every time I tried to drive myself I became extremely anxious. I found it easier on my nerves just to stick to the surface streets. When I lived in Phoenix, this was not much of a problem, because you can actually get anywhere you need to go in the metro area without ever getting on an expressway – even though it does take longer.

    When we moved seven months ago, I decided it was time to change. Both my mother-in-law and my mom have trouble driving on expressways, and their current problems date back to when they were about my age. Maybe it’s a self-preservation instinct in a young mother to become more fearful of things; but whatever the cause, I didn’t want this fear to stick around and limit my travel options now and in the future. We are lucky enough to live a bit closer to my family now, and I want to be able to pack up and drive 6 hours on the expressway to visit my relatives whenever I have a chance.

     In the 7 months since we moved, I’ve overcome this fear about 85/90 percent. I take expressways nearly every day; I’ve driven on them for 8 hours to get to Tennessee, 6 hours to get to New Orleans and back twice; and I’ve gone through Atlanta rush-hour interstate traffic three times. I now feel I could conquer nearly any driving situation. Although I don’t think I’m ready to drive through Los Angeles during rush hour; I still get a bit nervous passing 18-wheelers; I go way too slow in the rain; and I still feel anxiety going over tall bridges – I feel so much more free.  

     I know it was an irrational fear, although there is obviously real danger in expressway driving. Most people drive on expressways without fear or with minimal nervousness, just as the majority of people eat normally without any (or at least without much) anxiety. This week, I was thinking about the way in which I conquered this problem and its relationship to fears often experienced by those with eating disorders. In my book, I talk about how binge eating is usually ego-dystonic – meaning not in line with what the true self wants; and anorexia/restrictive dieting is often ego-syntonic – meaning in line with what the true self wants. When I was stuck in fear of the expressway, I believed my problem was ego-syntonic. After all, I felt really scared; I thought the fear was not worth addressing because taking surface streets didn’t take that much longer; I believed my kids and I were safer on surface streets. In other words, not taking expressways felt like a desire from my true self.

    However, after thinking this way for years, and after becoming pretty complacent about it – not really having any desire to change; I realized that just like my bulimia, this too had become habit. Maybe it started out as me truly being scared, but each time I avoided an expressway, I cemented the pattern until it became the norm and taking expressways began to seem so foreign. It became something I just didn’t do, and for years, I rarely even entertained the option. It was only when we moved, and visiting family whenever I wanted required hours of interstate driving that I snapped out of my complacency and felt a desire to change. It was then that I realized that what started out as an ego-syntonic drive to avoid my fear had indeed become habit and was now ego-dystonic based on my current goals. 

     All the thoughts I told myself to avoid taking expressways were well-ingrained and had become automatic, just like my urges to binge. Those thoughts discouraging me from expressways certainly weren’t going to stop just because I now wanted to drive on them. Just like with binge eating, I decided to try to get those thoughts to go away with action. I didn’t bother trying to go back and figure out where the fear stemmed from or what else I could change in my life to help make that fear go away. I didn’t even read driving statistics to try to convince myself I would be just as safe on the expressway as on the surface streets. I knew the fear was irrational and had become habit; so I decided I’d simply begin driving on the interstate day after day and hope those fears would subside like the urges to binge did. I had doubts in my mind about whether or not it would work, because I certainly don’t believe that the way I overcame binge eating is the solution to every one of life’s problems.    

     The first few times I entered the on-ramp of an expressway, I felt rather terrified. But, I knew that despite the feelings of fear welling up in me, I could control my motor movements – I could check my mirrors and merge left even if my hands were trembling a little. (I just want to say here that I realize that some people with phobias actually experience a panic reaction that they physically cannot control, and may actually lose control of their motor movements. I am not discounting that or saying that those people need to face their fears head on; my fear was more of an everyday variety – not a panic disorder). I reminded myself that my reactions were automatic, and I tried to detach myself from them, focusing instead on the motor movements I needed to perform to drive the car – something I knew I could control.   

     To my surprise, the fear subsided very quickly.  Within a couple weeks, I was using the less-busy expressways in our city with ease – and with much, much weaker fear reactions.  I began challenging myself by driving longer distances, on busier stretches of interstate, through traffic, and even straight over the Smoky Mountains (well, that wasn’t expressway, but still something I would have NEVER done just a year ago). Yes, there was anxiety, and like I said earlier, there are still driving situations that make me nervous. Nevertheless, I feel like I’ve come a long way in a short time; and taking the interstate feels so normal to me again that I sometimes wonder why I was ever so scared.

     I actually think this experience applies more to giving up restrictive dieting – which binge eaters often struggle with – than it does to giving up the binge eating itself.  A binge eater/bulimic can usually see that she doesn’t truly want to binge, but can sometimes have a hard time believing that she doesn’t want to diet restrictively. In other words, restrictive dieting feels ego-syntonic. The bulimic wants to lose weight or maintain a low weight, so she fears eating normal amounts of food or certain types of food. In order to avoid the anxiety that eating causes, she sticks to strict, low-calorie diet which then becomes the norm, and ends up initiating or exacerbating the urges to binge.         

     To a bulimic who diets restrictively between binges, it can seem scary to sit down at a normal-sized meal. For whatever reason she started dieting in the first place, dieting has become her standard and not dieting doesn’t feel right anymore. It can feel terrifying, and like something she simply should avoid in order to avoid that anxiety and fear of weight gain. But, avoiding it over and over only perpetuates the problem.

     Once a bulimic does have the motivation to eat normally, I think it’s important for her to keep the fear and anxiety in perspective. She needs to know that despite the anxiety response she experiences around food, she can still control her motor movements to pick up the fork and put food in her mouth. This takes a lot of courage initially, probably much more so than me merging onto the interstate the first several times; but it is well worth it. Then, as the act of eating normally is repeated, the more normal it becomes. It can be the same for those who are fearful of giving up binge eating. The more a binge eater can experience the fear of giving up the habit without letting that fear lead them into the wrong actions, the less threatening the fear should become as being binge-free becomes the norm.   

     It’s common for people to think that restrictive dieters/anorexics have an abundance of self-control. The fallacy in this is: what looks like self-control to an outsider is actually far from it. It takes much more courage for an anorexic or restrictive dieter to eat normally in spite of her anxiety and fear, than it does for her to keep restricting. Once the disorder is in place, avoidance of eating for an anorexic takes about as much self-control as binge eating does for a bulimic (and just about as much self-control as it took me to avoid the expressway when I was afraid of it). An anorexic feels driven to restrict in the same way a bulimic feels driven to binge – her restriction is not a sign of willpower. What should be admired, and takes a lot of courage and self-control, is for a restrictive dieter/anorexic to eat despite her fears.   

     Fear is a natural human emotion, and it can’t always be controlled. You can’t tell yourself not to be scared of eating normally and expect the fear to simply subside.  Sometimes letting go of fear can take time and practice. Sometimes – even if you are doing well – situations can catch you off guard, and you can find yourself panicking a little about giving up dieting or binge eating; but if you can remember that you maintain control of your motor movements and focus on that, it can help you keep performing the right actions, regardless of what messages you might be receiving from your brain.  

     There was one time during my re-learning to drive on the expressway when I was caught by surprise. It was on a drive to New Orleans to visit my family about 4 months ago. There is a bridge on Interstate-10 in New Orleans called the High-Rise, which I’ve always been weary of, even if someone else was driving. I drove on it maybe once when I was in college, but avoided it ever since. On this trip, I decided I wanted to avoid the High-Rise because I had all of my kids in the car, and I thought it would be best for me try it for the first time by myself. So, I took the exit just prior to the bridge, and turned on the navigation system on my phone to allow it to find me another route to my parent’s house.

     It found me another route all right – the quickest and most direct one – which was to enter a road that led to an alternate on-ramp, which led right to the top of the bridge and then quickly merged with interstate traffic at the peak. As soon as I realized where the road was taking us and there was no way out, I started to panic a little; I was shaking, terrified. But, I also knew I had to keep control of my motor skills, as I had 3 kids in the backseat depending on me to get them to their grandparents’ house safely. I was caught off guard in a situation I’d never had to handle before, and it wasn’t easy; but because I tried to focus on my motor movements instead of the fear, it was doable. I imagine this is how elite athletes are able to perform in extreme pressure situations– by focusing on what they know they can control (motor movements) instead of their anxiety. 

     I’m not saying learning to drive on the interstate is an extraordinary feat that I accomplished; people in this world have conquered much bigger fears and roadblocks in their lives.  And, I’m also not saying that we should all simply face our fears head on right now.  I’m only sharing this experience to encourage those who may be fearful of giving up restrictive dieting or binge eating that it’s okay to be scared, but that fear can be worked through and overcome. It’s easy to become complacent in avoiding the things that cause our anxiety, and sometimes it takes an external or internal motivator to give us a reason to face our fears; but it’s well worth it to change a habit or challenge yourself to accomplish new things. 

*This post begs an important question:  Why shouldn’t a binge eater be scared of eating normally? Won’t giving up dieting make her gain weight? It can seem like a legitimate fear to many people, just as driving on the expressway seemed like a legitimate fear to me. Yes, it is possible that I could get in a wreck, blow out a tire, be caught in a terrible storm…etc. The more legitimate a fear seems to a person, the less likely she/he is to try to overcome it. I’ve received several questions from readers about how to deal with a need or desire to lose weight during or after recovery, and how to address an ongoing desire to diet. I am not an expert on weight loss or how to accept your body for what it is, but I do have several thoughts on the topic, which I’ll share in my next blog.   

**Update:  It’s been 1 year and 2 months since I posted this, and my anxiety about driving is gone.  I’ve driven on the High-Rise during subsequent trips home at least 6 times, and while I still don’t necessarily ‘like’ it, I don’t even considering taking an alternate route.    

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