It took me about 10 years to realise that my tendency to hit the roof in rage whenever my mother offered me food was actually an expression of fear. I’m kind of embarrassed it took me that long as it seems so bloody obvious now that someone popping their head around the door and asking “Darling, would you like a sandwich?” should not provoke murderous thoughts and a tirade of insults. It dawned on me, that it was actually my anger that was inappropriate, not my mother. Who would have thought?

Once I recognised that my anger-response to being offered food was inappropriate, I was able to join the dots. Why do I split my wig when offered food? Because being offered food feels like a threat.  Why does someone offering me food feel like such a threat? Because I am afraid of weight gain.

Fear of weight gain was hard for me to swallow because consciously, I didn’t fear weight gain. Consciously, I wanted to gain weight. But fear is not always conscious, and despite wanting to gain weight I could also see that my actions and behaviours were avoidant of weight gain. My reactions were certainly indicative that some part of my brain viewed weight gain as a threat. Understanding that my anger was also a symptom of fear was helpful to me.

Then I began to understand that anger was one of a spectrum of fear-responses that I frequently exhibited. And that, actually, a lot of the “weird shit” I did was actually an adaption of a fear response. My fear-response of choice would depend on what felt the most suitable in any given situation. It wouldn’t do, for example, to get angry with every person who offered me food in the way I did with my mother. No, I saved the anger for the people who loved me most. People I knew less well would get flight, freeze, or fawn.


Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn

All the above are sympathetic nervous system (SNS) fear responses. I had my go-tos, but they were also situation dependent. If you recognise yourself doing any of these, then you probably are dealing with a fear-response to eating food (which is really a fear of weight gain.)

Fight

Looks like this:

Darling, would you like a slice of cake?”

“Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. How dare you ask me that. You’re the most horrible person alive. Oh, and by the way everybody knows that cake is bad for you and will kill you. So you’re basically trying to make me eat something that will kill me and that is pure evil and you should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t even come near me with that artificial-ingredient-laden cake of death. I hate you.”

Anger is most commonly used towards people we are close enough to to be able to get away with it. So for me, my mother got the brunt of my anger fear response. I would literally see red when she offered me food. I would feel so angry I would get dizzy. Livid. And I would be vile. Then, after my mother (the threat) removed herself from my presence, I would usually calm down and feel just horrid. I would still be mad at her, but I would also feel guilty for being so terrible to her. That’s a pretty standard sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system switch at work. Whist in the sympathetic NS (fight or flight etc) the anger felt warranted. When calmed down and in the parasympathetic NS (rest and digest) I could see my anger was an overreaction and I felt guilty about it.

Flight

Looks like this:

Would you like a slice of cake?”

“Er, yeah, sure but, I just realised I have to go and do that thing with that person that I said I was going to do. Sorry. Got to run. Bye”

The flight response is basically running away. I would use this SNS response when around people I didn’t know so well. Acquaintances, parents of friends, work colleagues etc. I would find a reason to leave when feeling threatened with food. This would often happen at social gatherings. I’d get there, realise there was the threat of food imminent, and leave. Often the best excuse being “I don’t feel very well,” or “I have a headache.”

The flight response, for me, would come into play in situations where the social trade-off of leaving felt low. Flight was more commonly my default response to social situations that I hadn’t placed great importance on being at — drinks parties where nobody would really notice if I had left, or work dos. If for whatever reason I felt social pressure to stay, I would be more likely to use the fawn response (outlined below).

Freeze:

Looks like this:

Would you like a slice of cake?”

” …. urm …… I  …. arg. ”

Brain freeze. Feelings of overwhelm. Often happens when having to make decisions over what to eat or in supermarkets trying to decide what to buy. For me, this looked like walking into a grocery shop and walking out an hour later having bought nothing. I would feel as if my brain had short circuited. I felt utterly unable to make a decision over something as simple as what brand of bread to buy. This is often the reason people with eating disorders opt to eat the same foods day in and day out: because food-related decisions cause a SNS response when you have a fear of weight gain. Restaurant menus commonly elicit the freeze response. For many of us, this sort of silent head explosion is uncomfortable enough to make us avoid any situation where we might publically be surprised with food or have to make an on-the-spot food choice.

The freeze response makes one look and feel like a gibbering idiot.

In a social situation, this would most often look like me totally ignoring the question or pretending I had not heard it.

Fawn (aka the appease response)

Looks like this:

Would you like a slice of cake?”

“Oh, yes, delicious, thank you, yum yum.” (Takes the cake then pretends to eat it while carefully breaking it into crumbs between fingers and dropping it onto the rug under the table and praying the dog eats it before anyone notices.)

I would do “fawn” in situations where I didn’t feel I could get out of eating, or I didn’t feel that I could get away with leaving — smaller gatherings where it would look really off if I just get up and left.

If the social pressure to eat was too great or if it would draw a lot of attention or make me stand out if I refused something, I would act very pleased to take the food then make myself as small as possible, withdraw from the conversation, and focus my energy on trying to make it look like I was complying socially by eating the food whilst somehow getting rid of it. I would often pretend to eat — fake movements of my mouth, noises of appreciation, exclaiming afterwards how yummy it had been, etc. etc.

I’m sure people noticed me doing this, but ignored it because it is awkward to ask someone “Hey, why did you pretend to eat that food when you were actually shoving it into your coat pocket?” It is not only weird to get caught doing this, it looks kind of rude. It is a form of deceit – you are pretending to eat – that catches other people off guard because they don’t understand why you would do that. I did get caught a few times and it was very embarrassing because there is no suitable excuse to make for purposefully dropping food on another person’s carpet.


Behaviours such as the above are fear responses and are indicative that you have entered your sympathetic nervous system. We only enter our SNS when our brain detects a threat. If you are doing any of the above behaviours or something similar, your brain sees food /weight gain as a threat. This is not a normal response and indicates a fear-based belief system (the belief that weight gain is a threat) that needs to be neurally rewired.

It was a real game changer for me to be able to see how my fear presented itself. It presented as anger, avoidance, running away, pretending to eat, and inability to make decisions. You can only manage and overcome fear if you can see it.

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