Written by: Laura McLain, PsyD, BC-TMH
Site Director, The Renfrew Center of Atlanta
Food rituals are compulsive behaviors that people use to manage anxiety. But how do you differentiate between what’s healthy and what’s not – especially when an eating disorder is involved? Let’s break it down.
Why the Relationship Between Anxiety & Food Rituals Can Be Messy
There are many behaviors that can become problematic for someone who is at risk of developing an eating disorder, who has an active eating disorder, or who is at risk of relapsing in their eating disorder. There are also people who have interesting eating habits, disordered eating behaviors, and specific food preferences. It can be challenging to differentiate what is a healthy or not so healthy relationship with food. How messy!
Additionally, some people have anxiety that feels very intense, out of context, and like it will never end. Often, this level of anxiety can influence someone’s relationship with food and can become problematic over time. There are various factors that can influence food anxiety and eating rituals. We are going to take some time to explore this relationship between anxiety and eating or food rituals and what you can do to reduce those behaviors.
Don’t a Lot of People Have Anxiety?
Yes! A lot of people do have anxiety about specific things such as a big exam, a fight with a loved one or friend, anticipation of a job performance review, or terrible traffic in the morning. Some anxiety is adaptive and helps us make decisions that move us toward our values and goals. However, for those prone to eating disorders, that anxiety can quickly spiral out of control. The type of anxiety we are talking about is the overwhelming, scary, constant, and sometimes crippling anxiety that affects around 25-35% of individuals with eating disorders. These are individuals who typically need some help to manage their anxiety.
What Are Food Rituals & What Is Their Relationship to Anxiety?
Most people engage in rituals; they are ingrained, woven throughout many cultures. Most of us do not even give them a second thought. They might even seem “normal.” We might sing “Happy Birthday” before blowing out candles, go to the same coffee shop every morning, sit by the same person in class, or say a prayer before a meal. Some rituals are helpful and create a sense of safety, routine, or help us connect with others.
There are also unhelpful rituals that negatively impact someone’s everyday functioning. Eating or food rituals are compulsive ways in which a person interacts with food to manage anxiety. When the person engages in the food ritual, their anxiety decreases in the short term, which makes it more likely they will engage in the behavior again when they experience anxiety or distress during a meal.
In the long term, these food rituals maintain both the anxiety and the eating disorder cycle. Some people are aware of their food rituals and others are not. If someone is not able to use food rituals, they may become distressed, more anxious, irritable, or even panicked. Not engaging in food rituals can also impact someone’s comfort with eating specific foods or entire meals.
What Are Some Examples? 13 Common Food Ritual
How Do You Change the Behavior?
When we think about making any changes, awareness is usually the first step. The more we pay attention to our mental health and our behaviors, the better chance we have of noticing things that may not be helping our anxiety and recovery. It can be helpful to think about the situation that is causing anxiety and any urges or behaviors that arise. Sometimes engaging in this type of introspection is challenging and it can be beneficial to reflect with self-compassion and curiosity rather than judgment.
Once an individual is aware that they are engaging in food rituals, they can take steps to make changes. Any kind of change is difficult! It is understandable that these changes may take a lot of patience and practice.
9 Helpful Tips to Identify Rituals & Alternative Actions
Below are some suggestions to reduce the use of rituals:
- Practice Mindful Awareness: Start with simply noticing your food rituals without judgment. Write down what you’re noticing and bring to your therapist or dietitian to discuss.
- Get Support: Eating disorders thrive in isolation. Create a plan to eat with others for meals and snacks to get the emotional support you deserve.
- Improve Accountability: Food rituals will only strengthen in secrecy. Share your struggles with your therapist or dietician so they can help you target these behaviors.
- Track Your Experiences at Meals: Identify and write down your thoughts, physical sensations, behaviors/urges in the present moment. Name the emotions you’re feeling and identify meals when rituals are most pronounced. Monitoring your emotional responses can help you gain clarity on why you’re using rituals to cope.
- Take a Break: Check in with yourself during meals. Give yourself grace and compassion as you lean into emotions and experiment with new behaviors.
- Journal or Draw: Take time to process your emotions after meals in creative ways. Writing and drawing can be useful ways to express your inner world.
- Delay Action: See how long you can delay the urge to use a food ritual. Delaying can help you gradually build tolerance to distress and work your way to eliminating these rituals.
- Start with Small Goals: A therapist can help you create individualized, gradual exposures that feel do-able to you.
- Take a Breath: Remember to breathe and give yourself credit for all the hard work you’re doing.
I Think I Need Extra Support, But Where Do I Start?
At Renfrew, we want to understand the function of eating disorder symptoms and how these behaviors impact anxiety. Understanding this relationship makes it possible for us to identify helpful interventions and alternative strategies. For example, someone who struggles with binge eating may plan out binges based on their mood that day. This person might select specific foods to binge, they might eat in a specific place, and they may have negative thoughts they replay in their mind before, during, and after the binge. When working with this person, a Renfrew professional will spend time understanding what triggers and emotions led this person to plan a binge, how they felt before, during, and after the planned binge, and something they think they could do differently in the future. We might recommend that this person eat with someone, complete their food and emotion journal, and meet with their dietitian to plan a meal that meets their needs.
Realizing you may need more support can feel overwhelming and reaching out for help is a very big step. The good news is that there are many resources to help. Some may decide to reach out to a therapist or dietitian to explore their anxiety and food rituals. Others may feel so distressed they need the structure and support of an eating disorder treatment program. Remember that you don’t have to walk this path alone.
Thank you for taking this time to learn about eating anxiety and food rituals. We hope you found it helpful for your recovery or for someone you know who is struggling. We understand that anxiety is a very natural part of life, but for some it can be overwhelming and debilitating. This anxiety can also influence our relationship with food and the rituals we use to decrease that anxiety temporarily. The good news is that with awareness, you can make changes to support your mental health and recovery. Some individuals may be able to make recovery-oriented changes with outpatient support, a loved one, or with the help of tools and skills. For others who feel more overwhelmed or distressed by their anxiety and eating rituals, Renfrew is here to support you. We wish you health and wellness in your recovery journey.