Ryan: Autopsy of an Angry Itch

Have you ever resisted the urge to scratch an itch? Really let yourself feel it? The next time you are hit with a really angry itch, don’t scratch. Be observant instead. Dissect the physical experience and notice everything about it.

We’re so conditioned to eradicate discomfort that most of us think resisting an itch is pure torture. You might notice that it’s not really as bad as you suspect. The sensation of the itch will escalate from baseline. It might challenge your ability to resist scratching, but steel your resolve and continue to observe. You might notice that the skin surrounding the original itch begins to twinge as well, but continue your careful experiment. After some stubborn persistence, you will realize something amazing about that raging itch.

It passes. It fades away like it was never there. Without thrusting a wooden spoon down the back of your shirt or shimmying against a door jamb.

Of course, the itch can return, and sometimes it’s more aggressive, but it will pass again.

Hunger is just another angry itch that can be tamed when we take the time to better observe it. In my darkest days, I never resisted hunger. That felt like torture to me. In fact, I hated the sensation of physical and emotional emptiness so much that I avoided it by eating constantly, so I would never experience it. That behavior filled me up to a certain degree, but it left me 120 pounds overweight and mired in a different sort of misery.

Thanks to intermittent fasting, I’ve learned to be more mindful of those sensations. Not eating for long periods of time helps me recognize the difference between true physical hunger and the nagging urge to eat anything I can my hands on to push down boredom or sadness or anxiety. In truth, neither kind of hunger is a real emergency, even though it can feel like one.

Fasting is the tool that allows me to negotiate true physical hunger with grace. I feel the sensation several times throughout the day, I observe it, it passes. When that kind of hunger intensifies and persists, it’s time to eat. It’s a normal response in a healthy human body. Easy.

Emotional hunger is a tougher nut to crack. It can be sneaky, manipulative and relentless. I still have days when I struggle with food, even after two years of maintaining my weight loss. I think I am hardwired to self-medicate this way. Fortunately, fasting is the answer for this, too, because it gives me the skills, the awareness, to step back and observe “the itch”, see it for what is, and make a different choice.

I love dogs, but I have an intense aversion to the sound of a dog barking in the distance. It triggers me to have a powerful fight or flight response. When a neighborhood dog begins barking for a prolonged period of time, I feel agitated, on edge waiting for the barking to cease, or for the next outburst to begin.

Last summer I made an interesting connection. Kim was working out of the house every day, leaving me with a lot of alone time. I was maintaining my daily fasts, but I was WAY overeating after opening my window. It felt like the old days of white knuckling it until I could eat, and once I started, I felt powerless to stop. I was eating snack after snack after snack.

There were many unsupervised dogs on my street last summer, too, and one day it hit me. Every time a dog began barking, I thought about food. Every. Single. Time.

Yap. Perfect Bar. Woof. Cheese and crackers. Yelp. Fistful of chocolate chips.

It wasn’t about hunger. It wasn’t about the food at all. I was just using food to push down anxious feelings. Huh.

Intermittent fasting gives me space to handle hunger like an angry itch. To notice what it is and react accordingly. To scratch when it’s time and let it pass when it isn’t. To be more mindful and in tune with my body and emotions. To be more forgiving of slip ups, knowing that every day is a new fast.

That’s freedom.

The whole story of our personal transformation is in our new book, Unbelievable Freedom: How Intermittent Fasting Transformed Our Health and Happiness, available on Amazon using the link below.