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.