Obsessing Over Exercise and Body Appearance

By December 6, 2012

I’m almost 31 years old and have been struggling with eating disorders since I was 14. I have done years of therapy and work on healing and have gotten my eating pretty much “under control” (i.e. in a healthy place). However, I cannot seem to tame the constant, relentless obsessing over exercise and body appearance. I work with a therapist and I’ve been on and off different medications and NOTHING seems to bring any amount of relief to this relentless thought process. It’s like being in agony in my own head. I have 2 children, one of which is 7 months old. My second pregnancy really changed my body and its response to everything I try to do. I’m sure part of it is also due to me being 30 with that pregnancy. I just want to be free. To have a small break from the pounding thoughts. I wouldn’t say I over exercise – the amount I do isn’t necessarily the huge problem. It’s the obsessive, worry thoughts that overwhelm me 24/7. From the minute my eyes open to start a new day to the minute I fall asleep, I am chased with these thoughts: How will I get to the gym tomorrow? What if I can’t? What if I’m too tired? What if one of the kids is sick and I can’t go? Which workout am I doing? When will I go to the gym? Which workout will I do tomorrow? How will I fit it all in and get the things done at home I need to do? What if I ate too much last night and can’t work out tomorrow? How will I work out 5 or 6 days this week when I have to miss tomorrow? …etc…. This has been going on for 17 years. I feel like nothing/no one can help me. I have tried everything – natural medicine, antidepressants, therapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. yet here I am, trapped in this hell inside my head that I cannot run from. I fear there is no help for me and I will have to live like this for the rest of my life. Is there anything left that I have not tried? Anything else I can do? I’ve been confronting this problem for years and still I cannot escape. – Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,

I was exhausted by the time I read the last sentence of your question! I could hear the feet dancing as fast as they could! I kept repeating in my head, as I read, the words you wrote by the seventh sentence: “I just want to be free”.

That call to have the ultimate get out of jail free card was followed by a relentless recall of the voice of agonizing thoughts. I read that you have done much to find recovery and wholeness. Your perseverance is noted and admired. I read that you have fought the fight on many fronts. What I think happens in long term struggles is that we develop a culture or way of interacting with that chronic problem that has an identity (an inner detective) of its own with us. We internalize, or choose to make a part of us, what we did not master with the idea that we will master it and be able to reject it and ultimately feel free again. What am I saying?

I do not know if the goal needs to be ridding ourselves of the voice or the obsession. The internal detective has the job of noticing what is happening on the inside, determining if a crime has been committed and bringing to justice any “off” part. And I think your internal detective, even though the number on the scale changed, is still on duty.

You write that you are the mother of two children and it is important to realize that the transition to parenthood demands not only physiological changes but a psychological shift. There are stressors and role changes and developmental changes happening within you, your relationship to the two children, your relationship to a mate, your place in the workforce, your ability to maintain friendships, etc. that may test the best recovery plan. And they test the very heart of our trust and sense of security.

Perhaps your inner detective (you call it the “voice of agony”) stays around because you feel safest knowing it is on watchtower duty. It uses words like “gym” or “calorie” or “exercise” but that is because it is language that means something to you and triggers an automatic sense of self control during a developmental season (parenthood and the transition to motherhood) that lacks a feeling of being in control at times.

Yes, I read that this feeling and voice existed prior to having children. Yes, your inner detective has had a lot of different developmental purposes and/or assignments. But it all boils down to making you safe when you feel scared.

My recommendation is that you learn to greet the voice, to acknowledge it when you lie down at night and talk back:

 “Hi. Who are you? Why do you want to talk about the gym? Why are you so worried? You can trust me to take care of this body. You can take a break. You do not have to always worry over me and motivate me. I care about me. I have been working right along side you for seventeen years. Please consider cooperating with me and letting me relax and take a break from your feedback. I am not going to reject you. But I need you to cooperate with me and trust that I will respond and behave appropriately and healthily and you will not be forgotten. You have done an awesome job monitoring details for me and keeping me on task. And now you can relax and you can rest and you can trust me.”

I challenge you to treat the voice as if it is a scared and younger part of you who has been obediently monitoring to protect YOU—the one agonized by it in the now. Consider having the above conversation several times over the next two weeks and listen…notice what you hear back, what you see, and what you naturally and instinctively do to nurture the detective to retirement.

Leanne M. Spencer, LPC, MAMFC