• Dina Cohen

Ready for a Summer Challenge?



Do you have something you wish you could do but find yourself held back by fear? Is it riding a rollercoaster? Swimming in the ocean? If you have disordered eating, it might be eating ice cream. Maybe you're afraid to wear a bathing suit. For whatever reason, your brain has associated a certain action with danger, and now that action ignites a fear response. Someone else might think, "Ice cream = delicious" whereas you may think, "Ice cream = danger!!" It doesn't mean ice cream is dangerous. It just means that the thought of ice cream activates YOUR alarm system, and when your alarm system gets into gear, it doesn't feel very good. It's not supposed to; it's supposed to protect you from danger! It's purpose is to protet you from the thing it perceives as threatening. It's going to do everything it can to keep you away from that thing your brain has labeled "scary".


Your alarm system (aka anxiety) is great when it works to protect you from actual harm. But when it gets activated because of a faulty association, it's no longer working to your advantage. It's like a smoke alarm blaring when there isn't any fire.


You may be starting to recognize that you WANT to eat ice cream on a hot day together with your family without feeling any anxiety about it. Or maybe you want to join your friends at the beach instead of staying home because you're too self-conscious about your body. You might be getting tired of your alarm system getting in your way and wondering if there's any way to deactivate it.


In a previous post I discussed how feeling guilty about something doesn't always mean you've actually done something wrong. Likewise, feeling scared doesn't necessarily mean you are in actual danger. If you'd like to do something that is not objectively dangerous and is in line with your goals but find that fear is holding you back, know this: just like your brain can create an association between something benign and "danger" (which creates a fear response), your brain can also unlearn this association. This is a key element in eating disorder recovery. You may have counted calories for YEARS, but that doesn't mean you are destined to automatically count calories forever. With time, mental associations and behaviors can and do fade away. If ice cream feels scary now, that doesn't mean it always will. Feeling afraid to wear certain styles is not something you need to experience forever, even if your figure doesn't change.


So how do you break unwanted associations? By feeling the fear and doing the scary thing anyway! This teaches your brain that the activity is not actually harmful. The alarm can screech away (and experiencing the accompanying symptoms of anxiety may not be enjoyable), but ultimately your brain will learn that you are not in actual danger. In order to do this, it is critical to understand that fear is just a sensation. You may be flooded with panicky symptoms and racing thoughts, but this is just your alarm system at work and does not indicate actual danger. Basically, freaking out doesn't mean that what you're doing is dangerous and that you need to stop.


It can be really hard to break these associations and to experience the distress involved in facing your fears, and many people do best taking small steps in the right direction rather than gigantic leaps. It is often more realistic to practice tolerating small doses of fear.This might mean getting into a bathing suit for a few minutes alone at home rather than suddenly spending all day in one at a pool party. It can mean incorporating a food that scares you once a week rather than multiple times a day. Success breeds success, and when you experience fear and plow ahead anyway, the resulting confidence will enable you to take on bigger challenges.


Just because you're scared doesn't mean you're in danger. Just because you haven't done something in forever doesn't mean you can't do it now. Just because fear has followed you for the longest time doesn't mean you can't break free.


So...what will YOU do this summer?

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