Apologies for the silence! I planned on getting a post up much sooner, but have had a very busy time with my dissertation, viva, final recital and many other things!
Please note that I am not a medical practitioner. I am speaking from my own experience, and I highly recommend that your recovery is supervised by a medical professional.
Extreme hunger is probably one of the most stressful parts of eating disorder recovery. It’s the thing that I see the people that I follow over on Instagram get the most worked up about, and that is entirely understandable. In my recovery so far, I have experienced periods of extreme hunger three times (each period lasting around a week and a half). It differs for every person; a day, a week, continuously for months, appearing on and off, some may not get it at all. Julia over at Drops of Jules offers a wonderful explanation of why extreme hunger appears in those recovering from an eating disorder.
Think about holding your breath. Not just to rid yourself of hiccups, but for a significant length of time. This past February, the world record was increased up to 24 minutes and 3 seconds for holding your breath. Imagine yourself holding your breath for that long. Your body is depleted of all oxygen. It’s tortured by this. But you keep going and going… until finally you stop. You open your mouth and you take in some oxygen for the first time in 24 minutes.
Now imagine how your body reacts at this precise moment in time. When you allow yourself to take in a breath. Do you automatically return to a steady state of normal paced breathing? No.
Your body heaves and gasps, pulling at the air to get in every ounce of oxygen it’s able to. It needs to make up for those past 24 minutes where it suffocated. It’s reacting to the torture it just endured.
When you deprive your body of air, an essential component to living, what is it going to do when you finally allow yourself to breathe again? Is it going to automatically return to a normal pattern and rate? Nope. It’s going to go crazy; you’ll heave and inhale as much air as you can.
Your body doesn’t trust you anymore. It can’t. Not after that.
Now it’s on alert because it’s worried you’ll hold your breath again. It’s now on guard for asphyxiation. Your body needs to learn how to trust you again. It’s gonna take in as much air as it can get right now in case you decide to stop breathing again.
Let’s take this same concept and apply it to food.
The first time that extreme hunger hit, I was in class. I had decided to try and get better, upped my intake by a measly amount and BAM. I had eaten my lunch an hour prior, and was understandably very confused and extremely stressed out. Class thankfully finished early, and being so ravenous, I didn’t care about my food rules. I ran straight across the road to a local burger joint and practically inhaled my cheeseburger and chips!
It’s something which is extremely difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it; it’s like nothing that I have ever dealt with in my life prior to anorexia and orthorexia recovery. I would eat, and not feel satisfied. In fact, it felt like the food just disappeared, and it hadn’t entered my body at all. Give it about half an hour, and I would be so hungry that I felt like I was going to pass out. Not only that, but I would have intense cravings, usually for foods that I had restricted in my disorder (and probably because they were filled with the high amounts of energy that my body needed). Ice cream, chocolate, crisps, you name it, I wanted it, and anyone in my vicinity was probably going to die if I didn’t get it.
But this didn’t mean that I immediately succumbed to these cravings. Coming from a disorder where I was allowed one piece of chocolate a week, this was extremely scary for me. I didn’t realise that eating these foods would benefit both my body and my mind (I firmly believe that the only way to get over a fear food is through repeated exposure). I would try to fill the void with ‘healthy’, safe foods, until I finally figured out that such behaviour made me feel even worse.
My advice to anyone going through extreme hunger would to be to trust the cravings. I know it’s scary. It might not be pretty, but please don’t be too hard on yourself. Trust your body! There is a reason that you are getting these cravings, or just the sensation of being ravenous. I promise that as long as you keep eating, it will all balance out in the end (side note: if you are in the risk group for refeeding syndrome, PLEASE ensure that you have medical supervision). I’ve gone through it three times now, and I have not ballooned up, died, or whatever my eating disorder told me.
Extreme hunger is an emotional rollercoaster. I remember going from terrified, to laughing because it was so funny to me that I was hungry for cereal yet again, to feeling drained and wishing the entire process were over. The most taxing experience was when I had extreme hunger during the most important audition week of my life – I didn’t need the stress of fear foods and reflux on top of the pressure that I was already under!
And yet, I’d like to suggest that extreme hunger is beautiful. It’s wonderful that your body can do such a thing to try and make you better again. It’s wonderful that your body has a way to bounce back from the restriction and damage caused. And it’s incredibly wonderful that it does so in such a way that will force you to face your fear foods. I’m not trying to be overly positive; I know that eating disorder recovery can be an awful experience. But viewing it in this way has really helped me to face extreme hunger each time it has hit.
Sending so much love to all of you out there struggling with extreme hunger right now! I believe in you. I know that this topic has been written about hundreds of times, but perhaps just one more voice will reassure you that you are not alone.