Adapting Addiction Recovery Skills to Eating, Part 2



Once you have utilized your addiction recovery skills to Identify Your Triggers for dysfunctional eating behaviors, you can take the next step to avoid those triggers whenever possible. Having been through the 12 steps, you are very familiar with accepting that willpower is not enough to change addictive behaviors. You must consciously try to avoid the situations, places and people that consciously or unconsciously lead you to eat, not eat, or otherwise abuse your food.

The easiest triggers to avoid are those that exist in physical space – the places where you tend to practice your unwanted eating behaviors. This might include certain rooms in your home, certain restaurants or events, a grocery store, or even your car. Consider avoiding these locations completely for a while, or at a minimum avoiding them when you are feeling vulnerable to acting out.

In some cases this is impossible, and in others you may find that any place that has food is a trigger. Test out the strategy of eating on a schedule and avoiding any spontaneous eating. When strong feelings arise, or temptations to eat dysfunctionally, remove yourself, talk to a support person, or write down a few thoughts or feelings that you can process later, when you are feeling calm.

Addictive behaviors occur most often when you are under stress, in pain, or experiencing challenging emotions such as shame, fear, or frustration. If you have easy access to food, such as on your desk at work, or in your car, you are likely to reach for it in these situations, even if that behavior is not congruent with your goals. Keeping food out of your immediate environment doesn’t mean that you won’t go looking for it, but it at least puts a barrier of time and space between you and your unwanted behavior.

If you have identified deprivation as a trigger, it is very important that you do keep an adequate but not excessive amount of food on hand but not within arm’s reach. Keeping food in the kitchen but spending time in other rooms is a good policy. Otherwise you may turn to your unwanted eating behavior as a response to the stress of feeling deprived. This is a paradox that may have confused you in the past – Why when you commit to cutting back on eating do you immediately want to eat? It is because eating is necessary for survival, and many of us have a survival instinct that pushes us toward food when we are worried that we won’t get any, or won’t get enough.

If you grew up in a situation where there was not enough food, or where you were punished for bad behavior by being restricted from food, you may be particularly susceptible to this paradox, even if you are not facing the same restrictions in your current environment. The temptation is to eat as much as possible now because food may not be available later. Food insecurity is a powerful trigger for dysfunctional eating, even if it is only imagined or threatened.

If feeling overly hungry is one of your triggers, it is important that you eat at regularly spaced times, to prevent the intense feeling of hunger that almost always leads to overeating. If you are eating regularly and find that you still feel empty, consider which feelings may feel like hunger for you. Perhaps sadness, loneliness, or disappointment feel something like hunger. Or anger or fear may feel empty to you. Food cannot solve any of these feelings, but it may seem better in the moment than doing nothing.

You may use food as a comforting behavior, or a mood-altering chemical, or as a momentary distraction. You may be aware of what you are doing, or you may not notice until the moment has passed and the feeling persists. The recognition that the food didn’t solve things, and may have made things worse, can cause feelings of guilt and shame in addition to the original uncomfortable feeling. In these situations, exercise self-compassion, the number one skill that you need to be able to use to change your behaviors. Forgive yourself for being imperfect, and plan ahead to identify your feelings before you eat in the future. You may find that downloading your feelings at regular intervals or before each meal is a helpful addition to your eating routine.

If you have identified certain people as triggers for unwanted eating behavior, try to avoid those individuals while you are working to understand and manage your eating. Do not accept invitations to meals or social functions from food pushers or saboteurs – those individuals who can’t take no for an answer, who use guilt or disappointment to manipulate others into eating, or who encourage the dysfunctional behaviors you are trying to stop. If you must get together, choose events that do not involve food, or explain that you are working on a project that requires that you eat in your home for a period of time. Refuse to elaborate or to violate your boundaries if the individual insists or attempts to create conflict. At some point in the future you may feel better equipped to eat in the presence of this type of person, but it is wise to minimize situations that may present you with triggers you are not yet skilled to manage.

Some triggers are completely out of the realm of your control regardless of advance planning and strategy. These include co-workers you see daily, family members and roommates with whom you live, major family events that are unacceptable to miss, and so on. Although your reaction to these events or people can be modified with time and effort, initially it may be easier to at least avoid them while eating, even if you can’t avoid them completely.

Some triggers, especially those that occur over a lengthy period of time, simply cannot be separated completely from eating. These include holidays, vacations, anniversaries of unhappy times, hormonal fluctuations, mental or physical illness or injury, unemployment, moving, graduation, marriage, divorce, and other life transitions.

In the past you may have accepted that dysfunctional eating was an inevitable part of these events or time periods, or you may have promised that “next time” you wouldn’t let them affect your eating. Knowing that these events are triggers because of their ability to influence your emotions, your stress level, and your ability to cope, you can discuss them with a counseling professional who can assist you in determining behaviors that would be more appropriate and effective expressions of your feelings. Having alternate methods of coping makes your unwanted eating behaviors become unneeded.

If you are feeling hopeless about your eating behaviors, or if you feel that you are unable to make needed changes in your current situation, please call Casa Palmera at 866-768-6719. We have intake counselors available 24-7 to assess your needs and recommend care.