Many of my clients who struggle with eating and body image find that one of the most distressing and frustrating elements of their experience is all that thinking! Phrases like “busy head”, “over-thinking”, “second-guessing myself” come up a lot in our discussions. Many clients describe “eating disorder thoughts” or “ED thoughts” that are upsetting, feel alien and are experienced as distinct from their “own” thoughts. These so-called ED thoughts might run along the lines of “Don’t eat that – look at all the cheese on it!”, or “Take these pants off - I look disgusting in them – I should never have had that chocolate last night” or “Restrict, restrict, try harder –you can win”. These kinds of thoughts create a lot of anxiety when they show up, and often prompt changes in behavior to stop the thoughts and the anxiety they are associated with, such as avoiding foods, avoiding going out, dietary restriction and so on.
For a client in recovery, often an internal “thought battle” ensues, with the person trying to argue against these sorts of thoughts with alternative “healthy” thoughts, such as “Don’t be silly, one meal won’t change anything” or “That one bit of chocolate has not caused my figure to change today!” and so on. Many people who struggle with eating can identify with the exhausting and very stressful nature of this battle, constantly trying to argue with or silence or ignore all the worry thoughts that show up in food-related situations.
Suppose there was an alternative to fighting with these “eating disorder thoughts”? Suppose it were possible to simply notice and allow those thoughts to be present, without freaking out, without suppressing them, trying to distract from them or argue with them? How would this change what happened when these sorts of thoughts showed up?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short, uses the word fusion to describe a state of being in which we feel that our thoughts are important, true, need attention, need action. When thoughts we are fused with show up, they become the focus of our attention, they take over our experience, and we tend to lose contact with much else that is going on either inside us or around us. Those of you who struggle with eating may fairly easily be able to think of situations where difficult thoughts show up, such as ordering food in a restaurant, and comments from those around you who have noticed you becoming internally preoccupied and disconnected from the outside world.
What is an alternative to being “fused” with our thoughts? Imagine standing on a familiar street and realising a parade is moving down the street towards you. “A parade?” you might have just thought – so imagine those words, question mark and all, on a banner at the front of the parade. And then notice the next thought that shows up and put it on some other part of the parade, a float, a band, acrobats, whatever seems appropriate. Continue imagining thoughts as part of the parade, one float following another.
This visualization exercise is one way in which we can notice thoughts as they show up, one after the other, and this act of noticing thoughts is the first step in “un-hooking” or “de-fusing” from them. When we are defused from our thoughts, we experience them as transient, passing phenomena, not necessarily important or true, perhaps associated with “a bit of old wiring “in our brain, and so on. We have dropped the battle with the thoughts and are simply noticing and accepting their presence without feeling the need to get rid of them through ignoring, arguing, suppressing and so on.
Learning to notice and unhook from thoughts can be an extraordinarily helpful skill in recovering from disordered eating. If you are interested in this approach and would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me, and we can discuss whether Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT would be an appropriate form of treatment for you.