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.
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.
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.