Posted by: VoiceinRecovery | August 23, 2010

A Fear of Hunger

Written by: Ashley Solomon

Some people are afraid of snakes, some of heights, and some of grimey, green, shower mildew. Me? I’m afraid of hunger. Okay, so I’m afraid of all the aforementioned things as well, but mildew phobias are not, to some readers’ certain dismay, the point of this post.

I’m not sure when my own fear of hunger began, but I know that I can remember hoarding Little Debbie Fudge Rounds in my childhood bedroom, terrified another member of my family would devour my precious treats and I would be left starving… to… death. If it sounds a little dramatic, that’s because it is. This fear of hunger can be truly panic-inducing at times. Usually, though, the manifestations are much more subtle.

My own fear of hunger often rears its ugly head in the form of overeating at meals. I notice a comfortable sense of fullness, and I continue to serve myself another heaping portion of lasagna (and not because my mom’s lasagna is out-of-this-world – though it is!). I instinctually fear that if I do not continue to eat, the scary monster of Hunger will come to ravage me later. And then what will I possibly do? So I take another helping and ignore the signals my body is giving me. And that’s the problem with such a fear – it prevents us from learning to listen and respect the wisdom of our bodies.

Another way in which I observe this fear is in putting off meals, worried that if I eat too early, I might face Hunger later when I’m not prepared. I pack snacks for everywhere I’m going. I avoid certain engagements for fear that I might be hungry during them and be stuck with the dreaded feeling. I think about food and plan my meals and snacks in my mind, when I should be focused on the here-and-now of what I’m currently engaged in. And at one point in the past I forced myself to almost always be hungry, in a vain attempt to assert my own control over this beast. To show it that I was stronger than it could ever be. (I was wrong.) In short, I let this fear of hunger control me.

What’s comforting to me on the one hand and distressing to me on the other is that this fear of hunger does not seem to be limited only to me. Taking a quick glance through the magazine rack at any given grocery store, you’ll come across articles like “Diet Without the Hunger!” and “Never Be Hungry Again!”

Never be hungry again? Really?

Not only are those claims unrealistic, but they contribute to our cultural fear of hunger. We see hunger as the enemy rather than a simple physiological response in our brains due to lack of nutrients or a drop in blood sugar (scientists actually are not quite sure what causes it, though there are many theories proposed). Human beings have experienced the sensation of hunger for eons, and in fact are quite lucky we do. If it weren’t for the physical sensation of hunger, we wouldn’t be aware of when to nourish ourselves and we’d be at grave risk for all kinds of unpleasant things (like, um, dying).

Stepping away from the physiology and into the psychology (where I personally feel much more comfortable…), I think that our fear of hunger comes from a more deeply rooted fear. To be hungry is to be vulnerable. It is to be in a state of longing and wanting, which, for many of us, is a very unsettling place to be. We don’t want to want as much as we do.

For myself, I know that part of my fear of physical hunger has reflected a fear that my other, emotional hungers could never be truly satiated. A fear that I demand too much and that I don’t deserve to be “full.” So I compensate. I don’t let myself get close to that place of wanting and desiring. What if I did… and no one could fill me? What if I was left helpless, yearning and stuck in this abyss of my own feelings? So I eat to stay far away from this terrifying possibility.

So what’s the good news? The good news is that, through introspection and loving supports, I am aware of this fear and thus I have been able to address it head-on. Just as with any phobia, the treatment of choice is exposure to the feared stimulus. In more down-to-earth terms, this means sucking it up and facing it, knowing that once we do, we can conquer it.

For me this has meant being willing to take major risks, like challenging myself to be unprepared and not knowing where my next morsel might come from. It has meant throwing out the “lists” of plans for meals (cleverly masked as necessary for cooking). And it has meant being open to examining all my other forms of hunger – hunger for success, hunger for comfort, hunger for affection, and all the hungers that lie deeper in my heart.

What are you hungry for?

Ashley is a therapist who focuses on the treatment of eating disorders, body image, addiction, trauma, and serious mental illness. She currently lives in Baltimore, MD and has been writing Nourishing the Soul, a blog about our sometimes distorted relationships with our bodies and food, since April 2010.

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Responses

  1. really great post!

  2. Ashley, this is such a great post! I struggle with a fear of hunger that I believe stems from my dieting years; because I used to refuse to feed myself even when I was hungry, I now hate to feel hungry ever. You’re so right that it really reveals much deeper, more emotionally-based fears – primarily that I’m going to slip back into a place where I’m not taking care of myself. Charting my hunger on a hunger/fullness scale has helped a lot because it has allowed me to get in touch with my body’s cues and note how my hunger progresses.

    • I’ve considered a hunger/fullness scale but haven’t used it regularly. I may give it a shot. Thanks for your reply!

  3. Thank you SO much for this post!!! I honestly had no idea that there were other people that had this fear. I’ve been in recovery for over 4 years and the main thing I can’t seem to shake is this really strong fear of hunger. As soon as I start feeling hungry I have to eat RIGHT NOW and if I can’t, I get super super super anxious. I’ve learned to keep snacks with me (granola bars etc) most of the time, but overall I either need to manage my fear better or start responding to my body sooner than later when it’s hungry.
    Thank you again for sharing!!

    • I’m so glad you could connect with this post! Thank YOU for sharing as well!

  4. awesome post, ashley, I can so relate to this…

  5. Ashley- pure awesomeness as always! I struggle with this too! It’s part of my “I’m gonna save up all my calories for the day so I can snack at night” complex- the fear is especially big of GOING TO BED HUNGRY. Don’t ask me why- I’ve never gone to bed hungry and have never been in a situation where I lacked for food.

  6. Great post. I do tend to organize my day around meals… and I wonder if that’s because I’m “hungry” for a time where I know I don’t have to be productive, where I can just relax with good company (either friends or a book, haha, either will do). I never thought about that before, but hmm…

  7. I love Ashley and I love this post! Sending the link on to some friends who I know would appreciate it.

  8. just found your blog– this is such a great post.

    often i plan my days around my meals– making mealtime more of a chore than of a time of enjoyment. one of my recent goals has been to lessen the anxiety around meals by remembering them as a time for social bonding and self-care. afterall, food is the best medicine, no?

    cant wait to read more. havea terrific tuesday
    becca xo

  9. Ashley, fantastic post! As always, so eloquent and articulate.

    I can so relate to doing everything you can to avoid feeling hunger. I feel like you’re sorta writing my story, though I’d put my fear of snakes right up there with my fear of hunger. Seriously. 🙂

    I’m the queen of carrying snacks. I’m known for having power bars, pretzels and nuts in my purse.

    While I think it’s absolutely important to attend to our body’s hunger cues, I also think my over-planning is totally a way to control my anxiety. Like you said, it’s to control the “what if I’m hungry, and I can’t find food.”

  10. […] guest posting for some of my favorite blogs. If you haven’t done so, check out my posts at Voice in Recovery and Healthy Tipping Point! Many thanks to Kendra and Caitlin for letting me share my thoughts with […]

  11. This has really given me something to think about. I have a history of restricting type AN and am dealing with a relapse. Hunger for me is reassuring and provides a sense of safety. It’s when I satisfy my hunger that I feel anxious.

  12. I think those of us who have starved ourselves in the past have waked up the terrible life-force beast deep within that has decided to NEVER let us die by starvation as long as there is a scrap of food around. I do think we set off some survival mechanism that kicks in and demands that food always be given first place in our lives. I, too, am a big-time snack -carrier. I do what I call “preventative eating” even if I am not at all hungry, because I fear the moment when hunger will kick in and I might not be able to eat right away. What makes it worse is that I do have low blood sugar and it IS a horrible feeling that is linked with the sensation of hunger. The hunger is also linked to the awful depression I had when anorectic. Thanks for helping me think about this.

  13. […] wrote an awesome guest post on Voice in Recovery about the fear of hunger. Why is it that we are so darn afraid to feel hungry? She also wrote a post on her on blog about […]

  14. An excellent post. It’s frightening, really, how food can occupy my mind and take over whatever I’m doing. I’ve never gone hungry, so I certainly can’t blame it on that – but I’ve been there, in that place where I feel like I have to eat more or faster, or the last of what’s in the pot out of fear, maybe not of hunger, but of what if I want it later and it’s gone?

    So weird, but, obviously, you get it. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  15. ohhhh you should have seen me nodding my head to this post! i hate those weight watcher’s commercials with the orange furball – it’s like SERIOUSY WE’RE ADULTS AND WON’T DIE.

  16. […] recently had that kind of “Aha!” moment when I read Ashley’s post on Voice in Recovery about her fear of hunger. The concept was then reinforced by Christie’s comment on my post […]

  17. Being hungry has been something I have been unwilling and felt unable to confront and is a lingering legacy of my time with anorexia.

    Back then, being hungry was a sign that I was in control; I was telling my body what to do when I felt I had little or no control of anything else. It was a sign that not all was lost, I suppose. It also became associated with the deep, dark depression the anorexia induced.

    This was closely followed by a panic period of bingeing when I don’t think it was likely I was ever hungry. And this attempt to stave away the dark has continued, albeit to a lesser extent, to the present day.

    I’ve overcome a lot since deciding I wasn’t going to live like a slave to food for the rest of my life – and to set a positive example to any children I have in the future. I’ve learnt to try all kinds of food, and truly give them a shot, widening what I can eat and opening my options.

    I still, however, struggle to feel hunger without it feeling like an emotional pain. This worsens with stress as I cling to food to keep at least that pain numb. I guess I can take from this the knowledge that this is really the honest truth of what I do, and try and work with myself from this point.

    But it is wonderful to have this issue recognised, as all too often, it is the struggle (and very genuinely so) of those trying to relearn to eat again rather than those of us with the leftovers of a body and mind confused by one too many diet.

    Thank you

  18. I had a terrible time confronting hunger yesterday. I have gone back to counselling and part of my work is now to try and curb the afternoon boredom/loneliness/sheer desperation snacks at work. I managed to get through the day without it. Yet the hunger feelings brought back such strong feelings like when I was anorexic, I cried all evening. My poor boyfriend tried to look after me, but I felt like I used to when I was ill, confused, out of control, a bit insane… Just for a few hours of hunger. I didn’t want to eat after, either, for fear of ‘spoiling’ it.

    I am now fairly overweight after several years of bingeing and compulsive eating, so some kind of weight loss programme is needed for my health. Being a little more careful about my choices etc. However I have found that today I’ve had to take the ‘three meals’ approach and be strict with myself about eating with others so I can’t sneak off and not eat… It feels ridiculous after so many years, and being the weight I am.

    Hunger is frightening, and when people say ‘just eat less / don’t eat’, they don’t realise how frightening that can be.


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