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Responding Wisely to Food Addiction Relapses

When you’ve worked so hard on overcoming your eating addiction, it’s terrifying to think that you might slip up in the future. Some people fear that merely talking about the possibility of relapse will make them revert to their old behaviors.

The truth is, it’s normal to hit some bumps along the road to recovery. Your cravings may come back when you least expect it. Maybe you’ll be doing well, and then you get a promotion at work and the old feelings of insecurity return. Next thing you know, you’re standing at the refrigerator with an empty ice cream carton in your hand. Or you may meet a wonderful partner and build a great relationship but find that you still feel ashamed of your body sometimes.

Don’t despair if your familiar thoughts, feelings, obsessions, or cravings return. For some reason, people tend to expect that life will be perfect in recovery. This is a common fallacy. Somehow, we forget that life is just life! It has its ups and downs. It’s never been ideal, and it won’t be flawless in recovery either. This truth is best accepted early on. There is no perfect way to heal. In fact, the desire for your recovery to be perfect comes from the same thoughts and beliefs that promote eating addiction in the first place.

So, what should you do when you slip back into old habits?

If you give in to your cravings, do so with attention. Enjoy every morsel of the chocolate bar, every crumb of the cake or cookie you are eating. Overeating with attention is good practice for mindful eating in general! If you notice the food you’re eating and how you feel afterward, you will be learning about yourself with each bite you take. In the long run, that’s more important than following rigid rules or trying to avoid foods you desire. Through attentional eating, you will be able, over time, to choose the foods that work best for you. You will also be able to spend less mental energy obsessing about food and your body.

Be gentle with yourself. After a binge, you may have thoughts like “I’ve totally blown it,” “I have no willpower,” or “I’ll never be rid of this problem.” Avoid judging yourself for giving in to your cravings. Standing in judgment only makes you feel hopeless and angry at yourself, and you may overeat again to soothe those emotions. Remember, you’re in the learning phase. When a toddler is just learning to walk, no one blames her for falling down again and again. You shouldn’t blame yourself either. Bouncing back after a lapse what matters.

Learn from your experience. With each “mistake” you make, you have an opportunity to learn something about yourself, your body, your beliefs, or your thoughts. So study up! If you skip breakfast and lunch and then eat an entire tray of lasagna at 6 PM, maybe it wasn’t a lapse at all – maybe you were just extremely hungry, and eating on a more regular schedule would help. Did you binge on a food you had been depriving yourself of? Maybe it would work better to allow yourself occasional treats. Were you hit by an especially strong emotion? Maybe it’s time to add a new skill to your coping toolkit. Stay curious, and remember that your body is always sending you messages. It’s up to you to listen.

The key to recovery is to stay flexible. Just as you need to cultivate physical flexibility by stretching your muscles, you need to promote mental flexibility so that you don’t become rigid in your thinking. Part of mental flexibility is treating yourself with compassion when you make mistakes. It’s also important to be willing to let go of old beliefs that don’t serve you anymore. And when you stay flexible in spirit, you can continue growing as a person.

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