EATING DISORDER RECOVERY: 4 PILLARS
Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
This week is for you.
I struggle to know the right thing to say when addressing Eating Disorder Awareness Week. How can I explain/describe/unpick my own 13 hard years into a post with a limited word count? How can I talk about something that I know we experience so differently? And yet how can I ignore it? How can I let this pass by when I finally feel I have the tools to help?
And so I write for a younger me; for the 14 year old who just wanted to fit in; for the 21 year old who thought she could fix herself with healthy eating; for the 25 year old who still, still, couldn’t get out of the cycle - even though, outwardly, it looked like she finally had.
And I also write for you…
… If you have ever felt the pull of diet culture, or have chosen to do something that put your health at risk because you just wanted to be a little bit smaller… if you have ever felt like recovery just isn’t possible, that you would be ‘this way’ forever, or that you should have to ‘cope’ or ‘manage’. I write because regardless of your current size, age, weight, race, gender… you deserve to feel freedom full force.
This is for you, us, me, if you have ever felt like you are not enough.
FOOD & PHYSIOLOGICAL RECOVERY
I know that it is often said, ‘but it is not about the food/ my weight’. And in many ways it is not; often they are simply the vehicles we are using in an attempt to find something else: love, connection, belonging… But in the words of Dr. Emily Troscianko, a researcher in the field of eating disorders:
‘Your starved state is making you unable to think flexibly enough to fully comprehend the possibility of eating or living differently, or even the possibility of wanting to think about and enjoy things other than food; it has hidden from you who you really are’
I want you to imagine a pyramid broken up horizontally into sections. This is the bottom of that pyramid. This is the base; that which without it will be impossible to build upwards, or at least, everything will be extremely unsteady if you do.
Physiological recovery is in many way the basics: the actions and choices we make each day. Because what research shows us is that when we engage in certain behaviours, like restriction or rigid food rules, or if we have to negotiate with ourselves, or to ‘make up for’ or ‘earn’ food, it results in certain outcomes, like food preoccupation strong enough to make everything else feel like background noise.
The work we will talk about today is in many ways quite practical. It is about about asking: what actions are keeping me stuck, or perpetuating a negative cycle?
CAN WE REWIRE OUR BRAIN? LIVING FROM CHOICE
One of the most helpful pieces advice I was given when choosing recovery (or a life no longer dictated solely by a desire to be small) was to imagine myself sat at a crossroads: a means of defining choice. You could go down the road well traveled, the one you know, that feels safe; or you could go down the harder road, the one that is overgrown. The road well-travelled leads you in circles. The other road leads you to the ocean ✨.
The idea is to help you to realise you are separate from your thoughts (or the ‘Habitual Voice’), emotions and urges. And in realising this you can see YOU have the power to dismiss them and to choose differently.
The analogy also represents subconscious thought and habit, and how we more readily choose the easy route, especially when we are tired/anxious/stressed. But what neuroplasticity teaches us is that we CAN rewire our brains - but it takes time, EFFORT and consistency to make the new path easy to choose.
1. Identify the habitual thought/urge/voice. Where does it show up? Ask: am I truly willing to make change?
2. What are the benefits of choosing the new path? What happens if you do not? What happens if you continue down the road well-traveled?
3. Be mindful of when the voice/ urge appears - what are the emotions around it? What triggers it?
4. Conscious choice. Sometimes talking out loud to yourself (yes, really) can be super helpful. What are you choosing to choose?
5. Replace the habit/thought/action with things that help move down the new path; with things that make your life feel more full; with things that excite you and make you truly happy.
CREATING MEANING OUTSIDE OF OUR BODIES
Perhaps this might seem like a foreign idea to some of you, but if you have ever stepped a little too far down the disordered eating route you’ll likely understand the need for the above. When it feels as though everything else is put on the back-burner; when you would put your health at risk to influence the shape of your body. It can feel impossible to understand how there could ever be a ‘way out’.
What does this look like real life (aka what is indicative of a potentially negative outcome)?
+ Self worth based upon looks and/or weight
+ Obsessively scrutinising body / frequent mirror checking
+ Refusal to look at body due to anxiety / shame
+ Frequently comparing self to others
+ Distorted perception of shape
+ Unhealthy methods to try and influence shape
We can fall into the above for a whole host of reasons but creating an awareness around WHY can be helpful in moving us towards healing. Begin to pay attention to the voice in your head.
For instance, idealising thin-ness, as if that would make your life ‘better”, might sound like:
‘I should look my best ALL the time’
‘If I was X people would like my less/more’
‘If I looked how I wanted, I would be happier’
Or you might engage in negative or ‘fat talk’ around your body, a common phrase being:
’I feel fat today’
You might engage in perfectionism:
‘Never, muscular/thin/lean… enough’.
We aren’t adding further layers of judgement here, but instead noticing with curiosity how we speak to ourselves.
There are a few parts to this work:
‘COPING’ OUTSIDE OF FOOD
As I alluded to at the start of this piece, choosing to control our food and our bodies is often not about those things at all. Instead they work as mediators; our means of creating a certain outcome: be that love, connection, a sense of safety… they serve a purpose.
It can be helpful here to look at the autonomic nervous system, the importance of which was first introduced to me by Nicola Hobbs.
Our nervous system’s core objective is to keep us alive, the responses from which are survival mechanisms that have allowed human beings to survive.
There are 3 autonomic states
Safe and social (connection)
Fight-and-flight (e.g. anxiety and stress)
And it is healthy to experience all these things. But many of us find ourselves stuck in fight-or-flight or shutdown - perpetually stressed, anxious or numbing. In these states our need to be comforted/soothed can mean we rely on and to slip back into habitual and /or safe actions. And so we want to find a way of fulfilling those needs tis ways that are healthy and positive.
How can we help ourselves regulate our nervous system and feel safe?
+ Breath work
+ Nature (no tech)
+ Being around those that make you feel safe
+ Creating a relaxation practice