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Anxiety is an almost universal experience of people who live with eating disorders, whether anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. Relaxation therapy can melt away anxiety and make progress with other symptoms easier.

Dealing with an eating disorder is a stressful experience. Unfortunately for people who have eating disorders, one of the main ways most people who feel stress deal with it is with food. Someone who is stressed out over their binge-eating disorder is often inclined to eat even more. The same is true of people who live with night eating syndrome. In anorexia nervosa, anxiety won't trigger eating, but it may trigger purging, which makes the complications of the disease all that much worse.

One of the interventions therapists use to stop the downward spirals set off by anxiety is relaxation therapy.

What is relaxation therapy?

The most common form of relaxation therapy is "progressive" relaxation therapy, a skill that can be learned in just a few minutes. In progressive relaxation therapy, the first thing to do is to find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. The lights should be low. The room should be quiet. Cell phones and computers need to be turned off. Doors need to be closed with a "do not disturb" notice. You take off your shoes and loosen any tight clothing and then start relaxing "progressively."

  • First, bend the muscles of your feet and toes just as tightly as you can and hold them tight to a count of ten, 1-2-3-4-5-6-8-9-10. Breathe in while the muscles are clenched. Then release and slowly breathe out, exhaling completely. Take a moment, maybe about 10 to 15 seconds, just to relax. You don't have to count the numbers of seconds while you relax. Just enjoy the break. (Many people fall asleep during this exercise. That's OK.)
  • Next, elevate your heels off the floor without using any muscles other than those on the backside of your shin. Hold these muscles just as tightly as you can to a count of ten while you are inhaling. Then relax those muscles and as you breathe out. Take another break before you make your knees tense and release.
  • Continue this process up your body, tensing and releasing all your major muscle groups all the way up to your ears and scalp. The objective isn't to hold your muscles so tightly that they hurt and you tense them and breathe in. You just want to notice a real contrast when you relax your muscles and breathe out.

If you have difficulty envisioning this process, there are tapes, MP3s, YouTube videos and websites with instructions you can play the first few times you do the exercise until you feel comfortable with it.

Still having a little difficulty envisioning what to do for progressive relaxation? Try these exercises, following each with a 15- to 30-second  rest period. Point your toes toward your face. Then point them away from you. Hold your thighs as tightly together as you can.  Press your buttocks together tight. Clench your fists. Extend your hands and wrists forward, bending your hands at the wrists. end your arms at the elbows, and flex you biceps.Then release. Shrug your shoulders. Wrinkle your forehead. Close your eyes tightly (but remove your contact lenses first). Frown as tightly as you can. Smile as broadly as you can. Touch your chin to your chest. Don't do all of these muscle motions at once. Remember, the principle is progressive relaxation, all the way up your body.

Progressive relaxation is a technique that doesn't cost any money and that just about anyone can do. It's also possible to use biofeedback machines, follow a guided meditation (by listening to a recording or with a therapist in person), or do self-hypnosis.  However, progressive relaxation is a tool you can learn and use anywhere, anytime for the rest of your life.

How do we know progressive relaxation works?

Research at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has focused on progressive relaxation as a treatment for night-eating syndrome. This condition is a little like "sleep eating," and sometimes involves sleepwalking. People who have it may walk as if they had been hypnotized out of bed to the refrigerator and just start eating. Children who have this condition may eat in their sleep, but not eat things we recognize as food. There is a real danger of consuming toxic substances or dangerous objects while night feeding. The researchers at the University of Pennsylvania also looked at progressive relaxation as a treatment for binge-eating disorder.

In both night-eating syndrome and binge-eating disorder, the regular practice of progressive muscle relaxation helps the people who do it snack or binge less after they finish dinner. Interestingly, the University of Pennsylvania researchers report that the effect of progressive muscle relaxation is greater when it isn't combined with an exercise program, and progressive muscle relaxation by itself is also more effective than the combination of progressive muscle relaxation and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Relaxation therapies of all kinds can help you feel better. They won't do all the work of appetite control, although they will help you fill your evenings with more resting and less eating. Don't rely on progressive relaxation therapy or any other single technique as your only treatment, but do progressive relaxation to release tension and to bring evening eating back under your control.

  • Graser J, Stangier U. Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2018 Jul/Aug. 26(4):201-215. doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000192. Review. PMID: 29975338.
  • McCuen-Wurst C, Ruggieri M, Allison KC. Disordered eating and obesity: associations between binge-eating disorder, night-eating syndrome, and weight-related comorbidities. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2018 Jan.1411(1):96-105. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13467. Epub 2017 Oct 16. Review. PMID: 29044551 .
  • Vander Wal JS, Maraldo TM, Vercellone AC, Gagne DA. Education, progressive muscle relaxation therapy, and exercise for the treatment of night eating syndrome. A pilot study. Appetite. 2015 Jun. 89:136-44. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.01.024. Epub 2015 Feb 4. PMID: 25660340.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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