The Mighty Logo

How I'm Applying 'Blue Car Syndrome' in Eating Disorder Recovery

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

There’s a thing called blue car syndrome (also known as “frequency illusion”). Who knew?! It’s the phenomenon where you don’t notice how many blue cars there are out there until you decide you want to buy one — and then all of a sudden they’re everywhere.

I remember when I was first pregnant — with a pregnancy I lost a short time later — and it seemed like every single woman on the street was pregnant.

My Awareness of Gestating Women Had Increased Exponentially

So it is with blue car syndrome. There are no more blue cars on the road than before, but we simply become a lot more tuned in to something when it is on our radar.

I figure I can use this phenomenon to my advantage. The more I focus on something, the more I become aware of it. If I crave a French vanilla slice and send all my thoughts towards the perceived advantages and disadvantages of eating it, I become super-focused on the slice and can’t think of anything else. (Trust me — this has happened a gazillion times).

If I instead try and create a sense of curiosity about why I feel like eating, I can make a much more healthy decision about whether or not to eat at all. Is it hunger? Emotional numbing? A socializing opportunity? Habit? Is it just delicious and that’s OK?

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with eating a vanilla slice. They’re a lovely little treat and food is there to be enjoyed. But I once developed a habit of eating one practically every time I went past a shop that sold one — and it turns out there are a lot of shops that sell them. Before I knew it, the slightest bit of stress meant I needed a vanilla slice, and no amount of mental reasoning could see me stop obsessing.

Actually — it’s the obsessing that gets you in the end. By turning my attention away from the delectable treat and figuring out why I want to eat in the first place, I find myself in a much better position to make a choice that I feel OK with later on. Sometimes that choice is to eat the slice. And that’s OK. Sometimes I realize I want to numb away an emotion and perhaps it’s better to feel it than to eat it. And that’s OK.

Merriam Webster defines courage as, mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. Eating disorders are filled with fear and it takes a lot of courage to stay on the recovery track. But it also takes skills and tools and tips and practice.

Refocusing My Obsessive Thoughts and Reframing Negative Self-Talk Is Part of the Process

Now, it’s not just as simple as saying, don’t think about it. If anxiety was that easily solved, nobody would be anxious. And sometimes fear needs to be thought about and faced head-on. But it’s the rumination and obsession that gets very unhealthy and incredibly unproductive, and that’s when the blue car syndrome comes in handy for me. While my subconscious is intent on seeing every blue car on the road, I can set my conscious mind to counting the white cars. Or some such other distraction. I can try and focus my attention on productive and sustaining thoughts rather than letting my subconscious rule the roost.

Does this work all the time? No. Of course not. Sometimes rumination gets the better of me and all I can focus on is the very thing I don’t want to think about. But sometimes I am able to redirect thoughts by focusing on the emotion rather than the desire to act.

I am using this skill to help me come to terms with weight gain. It’s what I mean when I say I don’t have to like something in order to accept it. Nothing positive will ever come from me standing in front of the mirror and berating myself for how I look. Today, I am as I am and the best choices I can make are to focus on good, healthy emotional outcomes and not stress about whether it’s better to have soup or a smoothie for lunch. I won’t get comfortable with my body by hating on it.

My Emotional Wellbeing Is of Far More Importance Than My Waistline

I have really struggled with the weight gain aspect of recovery — really, really struggled. But letting go of the need to lose weight was a huge turning point for me and is a decision I have had to make over and over again. I didn’t just decide one day to choose good mental health over my favorite dress. I have to make that decision every single day. The good days and the bad days. The hard days and the long days. The days where I fuck up and get it all wrong. The days when everything runs like clockwork. All the days.

Unintentional attention to blue cars is such a good analogy for me personally. We all notice stuff. I’ve been at a restaurant with friends and then afterwards one of them commented on the light fittings. I didn’t even notice the light fittings were there, but her attention was drawn to observing their unusual nuances. Our attention is often focused on the unconscious, it feels good to turn awareness to healthy outcomes.

There was a fad for a period of time (is it still a thing?) where people would write out all their dreams and goals and look at the lists every day and by visualizing these things, they would come to be. I am sure there is a lot of validity to this philosophy. If we spend every day thinking about pursuing a dream then we’re more likely to be taking steps towards making the dream a reality. And on the ugly side of the same coin, if we spend all our time focusing on how shit our lives are, then our lives feel shit. Changing perceptions can create opportunities.

If You’re on the Lookout For An Opportunity You’re More Likely to See It

Life is never simple and just dreaming of winning the lottery or becoming a professional ballet dancer won’t make it happen. But without the dream, it’s an impossibility.

Getty image by LeManna

Originally published: October 15, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home