Part Two, 3 things you can do right now to feel more in charge
1st May 2020 | Author: Bianca Skilbeck
A couple of months have passed, and the covid-19 pandemic rages on.
Whilst the world watches and waits, we do our best to isolate, physically distance and for many, simply survive. This last point means different things depending on who you are.
If you identify as falling in to a high risk or vulnerable population, then for many reasons, these times may in small or large ways be affecting your ability to feel safe.
Folks with eating disorders, disordered eating or other mental health conditions may at the moment be vulnerable for specific reasons.
Being suddenly confronted with food stockpiling, fears of food scarcity, loneliness, loss of social, community or financial supports, loss of routine, having to face homeschooling (if you are a parent) and endless amounts of time to wile away the hours, may for some feel overwhelming.
That’s not to mention the seemingly endless messages we’re being blasted on our social media feeds from all the motivation gurus, telling us to ‘use-this-time-to-lose-weight-get-fit-or-be-productive-in-some-way’.
(PRO-TIP: you are allowed to unfollow, hide or block if what you are seeing is triggering, shaming or simply unhelpful).
How can we understand what is going on here?
With all that is going on, I have recently been reminded of the psychological theory from Abraham Maslow, ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, as pictured below. Whilst not a perfect or infallible theory (they rarely are), I think this can help to conceptualise a little bit about what might be going on if you find yourself in old triggers or recurrent ways of thinking, feeling and acting.
Sitting at the foundation of human needs are the essentials; food, shelter, water, etc.
Some folks over the last couple of months have had an experience of being knocked all the way down to the bottom of the hierarchy, as they battle with either real, or perceived food scarcity.
Some may battle with the second rung on the hierarchy; a feeling of safety. Those with existing health concerns or who are living in areas of high rates of infection, may struggle to feel a sense of safety in their bodies. Many have worried for the safety and health of loved ones, especially the elderly or otherwise vulnerable. Others who have lost their income may struggle to feel financially safe and that they will be able to keep a roof over their heads.
In the middle of the hierarchy are the needs for friendship, love and intimacy. This too has been threatened by “social” distancing.
For those who struggle or have struggled with disordered eating, the rungs on this pyramid might hold special significance.
Based on Maslow’s original hierarchy, a useful model was developed by registered dietitian, therapist and author, Ellyn Satter; ‘Satter’s Hierachy of Food Needs’, as pictured below.
On the bottom rung, equivalent to Maslow’s hierarchy of physiological needs, is simply that you will have access to enough food. It’s kind of important for survival isn’t it?
The important part of this to note is that scarcity, deprivation or fearing that there will not be ‘enough’ food, can be real OR perceived.
You may experience food scarcity through income insecurity, or you may experience food scarcity if you are a chronic dieter and your body has stopped trusting that you will give it enough food. Many chronic dieters are unknowingly stuck on this first level of the hierarchy; pandemic or no pandemic.
If you are free from the threat of the hunger and deprivation of the first level, you might move on to the next level which is having access to what you consider ‘acceptable’ foods. The definition of this varies from person to person and there is no right or wrong. This stage is about not just having access to ‘enough’ food, but having access to enough ‘acceptable’ (in your eyes) food. Whether it be by some standards of nutritional quality, taste, variety, or reflection of your cultural or religious needs or otherwise.
Next, we see that access to enough food and enough acceptable food, must also be reliable access. You may have feared in recent times that although there is enough acceptable food right now; is that access reliable?
As we move up the hierarchy, we move on to not just having enough acceptable food which is reliably available, but also to having food that tastes good for you. Then we have the desire to have novel experiences with food, and just as at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy we reach a point of self-actualisation; in Satter’s hierarchy we reach a level of food being instrumental to us. This is when we are able to have enough acceptable, reliable, good tasting and novel food, that we can start to experiment with what really works for us and what doesn’t.
At this level we are safe to truly have food freedom.
So you’ve been knocked down a rung or two on the hierarchy…..what next?
If you’ve found that recent events are contributing to a sense of a loss of control or certainty, or old or persistent ways of being with food are triggered, then this may look like any number of things. This might look like so called ‘comfort’ or ‘emotional eating’, bingeing, restricting, obsessive thoughts about dieting or body image, or body checking, just to name a few.
Know that if any of these behaviours have made a recent resurgence, you are not alone and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
As humans, we have remarkably complex and ingenious ways of surviving adversity. Oftentimes, when we find ourselves engaged with self-sabotaging or harmful behaviours, we can quickly trace the roots back to times long ago, when this behaviour worked as some kind of protective or survival strategy. The things that you do nowadays which you find distressing, have often evolved and adapted out of very genuine efforts to manage difficult life circumstances or events and difficult emotions. Oftentimes, what may look or seem like self-sabotaging or harmful behaviours, are things which have evolved to help you to survive.
It may feel like a bit of a stretch or a counterintuitive way to think; however, in many ways, you can thank that part of you that is just doing the best that it can to help you get by.
Recovery from disordered eating can involve looking at a number of factors including but not limited to beliefs, thinking styles, trauma, relational attachment styles, self-care, self-worth, self-compassion and of course, education about actual nutritional requirements.
With all of this being said, the work to be done can at times feel insurmountable…..
....but you’re frustrated right now, I get it!
It may feel all well and good to be compassionate with a triggered part of ourselves, but you need strategies and you need them now. I understand and I want you to know that you are not powerless to old narratives, traumas and coping strategies of your past.
Below are three things that you can do right now to help you to gain back a little more power in your life and see you in charge – not in control (notice the difference?) of your life and your emotions, which can lead to a stronger feeling of safety with food.
Things you can do right now
1. Create some routine
It’s undeniable; life is different right now. In whatever ways your life has changed, one of the things that you can do right now to take charge, is decide what small daily routine you can implement.
This will be different for everyone. You don’t need to implement the same routine as Karen down the road, or Joe Blow on his blog who thinks he has the answers to all of your nutritional, fitness and health needs to keep you healthy until you’re 100. No, this one is about you and figuring out what works for you.
Make time to decide what is possible, sustainable and makes you feel good for doing. It may be as simple as getting up at the same time each day and getting dressed. Maybe it’s calling a loved one, or taking a walk at roughly the same time each day.
Note that if you have tended towards lots of rules and restriction, then for you, this may actually look like implementing time in the day when you get to just ‘be’. It may actually look like letting go of a particular rule or part of your routine which you know deep down isn’t serving you.
Try not to let yourself get too absorbed in any one thing, be it work, study, Netflix or otherwise. Create some boundaries around what you must do, so as you can move on to the next step…
2. Do at least one thing you enjoy every day
Give yourself something to look forward to. What do you enjoy? To give you an example, I have recently taken up yoga which I do in my lounge in front of the TV. The type I’m doing you would hardly call exercise, rather it is a really good stretch. In fact, it’s so slow that that little voice inside my head sometimes pops up, taps me on the shoulder and asks, “are you wasting time?” (that old "productivity" trope).
Nonetheless, I quickly reason with that voice because boy, do I feel better for it. I have quickly come to actually enjoy not having to do anything else in those moments.
None of that is to say what you should do of course. Maybe for you it’s something creative like drawing, painting or music, or maybe it’s journaling or reading? Find what you really genuinely enjoy, not what you think you ‘should do’. Find what really makes your heart sing, then give yourself time to do that every day, totally guilt free. Honestly, you need to, this is not just a 'nice to have' item, or an 'I'll do it later' item. This is so important for your mental health.
What are we put on this earth for if not to enjoy some of the ride?
3. Don’t hide
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. It’s so tempting when you begin to spiral in to some of those darker moments, to hide away with it and yes, even relish in some strange way in some of that self-sabotage. I know, I’ve been there. You may not be used to asking for help, but it’s a skill well worth cultivating. Find the people in your life who you can turn to. It won’t be everyone, but even if it’s just one or two trusted people, find them and turn to them. Open up about where you’re at. Or else find a support group (you can join the Freedom from Food Facebook group HERE) or a trusted therapist, many are doing telehealth sessions these days. A problem shared really can be a problem halved.
In the next blog post, I will build on these three points of what you can do right now, with 3 points about some of the deeper work, so stay tuned.
You can read in more detail about Ellyn Satter's hierachy of food needs HERE
You can read in more detail about Maslow's Hierachy of Needs HERE