Recovering from an eating disorder can be difficult. If you or someone you know is trying to overcome an eating disorder, you might find that other physical and emotional issues can come up during the process
....and that's okay.
What is "recovery"?
There are different meanings for recovery. For some, recovery means the end of their eating disorder symptoms (e.g. starving, binging, excessive exercising, purging). For others, recovery is the end to the physical symptoms as well as an end to feelings of fear, guilt and hate about eating or even having an eating disorder.
Complete recovery which may seem difficult, and it is most definitely possible, can be associated with a strong sense of peace and contentment. Most people who want to overcome an eating disorder find it is helpful to have the support of a mental health professional and nutritionist.
How long does it take to get to recovery?
There is no simple answer to this. Overcoming an eating disorder may be shorter for some people than for others. It is not uncommon to experience relapses (a return of eating disorder symptoms, unhelpful thoughts and behaviors) during the recovery period. Try to remember that anyone can recover and the length of time to recover will vary for different people.
What are the positive effects of recovery?
The benefits and value of recovery may be difficult to see when you are currently facing an eating disorder. For many people, the behaviors associated with the eating disorder act as a reward or serve a purpose in life. Therefore, it may be difficult to see the reasons for stopping these unhealthy behaviors.
Recovering from an eating disorder is healthier emotionally than life with an eating disorder. Overcoming an eating disorder will allow you to feel positive about yourself and at peace with your life. Without an eating disorder, you’ll also have more energy to be engaged in life—like in school, work or other activities.
Overcoming an eating disorder can also help you be physically healthier. Eating disorders can severely damage your body and lead to long-term health problems, including heart issues, bone and hair loss. The sooner you begin to change harmful behaviors, the greater your chances of possibly reversing or lessening these effects.
Some people, depending on the type, length, and physical symptoms of their eating disorder, may experience long-term health issues. These can include issues related to fertility, bone fragility/density (osteopenia/osteoporosis), weakened heart muscle, damage to the digestive tract (usually caused through the misuse of laxatives), and other organ damage.
Some of these health problems can be fixed with time and/or appropriate treatment, while other health problems will only be able to be managed. It is important to talk to your doctor about these issues – if there is a problem, it is best to know what you’re dealing with and what can be done to manage or fix it.
Underlying Emotional Issues
One of the main reasons these issues arise during or after recovery is that they are usually the underlying causes of the eating disorder. Your eating disorder may have been a way for you to bury or cope with these issues. When you remove the disorder, the underlying issues no longer have their usual outlet – the coping mechanism has been removed.
So, if you find that you are experiencing one or more of these problems while working on overcoming your eating disorder, it is important that these issues are also addressed. You might want to talk to a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist to help you deal with these underlying issues.
Overcoming an eating disorder could very well be a rocky road, often a case of two steps forward and one step back. The number of times you fall back into your eating disorder is not important; what is important is that each time that you take a step back, you don’t let yourself dwell for too long. Try to pick yourself up and begin where you left off. It might be a slow and frustrating process, but you will still move forward, and that is what will get you there in the end.
Often something might trigger your relapse. It could be something as “big” as a break-up or a death or as “small” as the tone in someone’s voice or an unanswered text. Being able to identify your triggers might be helpful because it could allow you to look at how you originally responded to the situation, and to think about how you might respond in a more positive way next time. Identifying these things can be hard at first and may take some time, but with practice you will become a pro and you will be able to catch yourself in the moment.
Remember that you don’t have to go through recovering from your eating disorder alone. The changes you will make are complex and not easy. Most people who are working to overcome an eating disorder have mental health professionals and nutritionists who support them in making the necessary personal changes. If you’re having a hard time or find yourself relapsing, it’s important that you talk to someone to get the support you need. This could mean reconnecting with a mental health professional you worked with earlier, or establishing a new contact. Friends or family members can also be helpful.
Tips to Help with Overcoming an Eating Disorder
There are many solutions – both large and small – that might help you along the journey of recovering from an eating disorder. Below are some recommendations that can help.
- Therapy. There are many options for therapy and you should find one that is suited to you. This might include individual counseling with a mental health professional, group therapy, or—if your eating disorder has led to serious physical problems—treatment by a doctor in a hospital or medical setting. You can talk to a mental health professional or doctor about which type of treatment might be best for you.
- Keep a “recovery journal”. Fill it with positive and affirming thoughts. Write about why you want to recover, what your eating disorder gives and takes away from you, where you will be in 5 or 10 years if you stick with your eating disorder instead of giving it up, where you will be if you do give it up, and/or anything else that will help to get and keep you motivated.
- Spend time with positive and supportive people. People who are comfortable with themselves and their bodies and who have a healthy relationship with food could be a positive influence and great to have around. Spending time with people who possess these qualities that you admire and aspire to develop within yourself will really help you in your recovery.
- Talk to other people recovering from eating disorders or people who have already recovered. Mutual support can be incredibly inspiring and motivating. It also might be helpful to you because they understand what you are going through; they ‘get it.’ And there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing someone else make progress, overcome the eating disorder and enjoy life. Your mental health professional or doctor can probably suggest groups you can join or people you can talk to.
- Surround yourself with motivational and positive content. If you’re on social media of any kind, you are constantly being bombarded with information and images as you scroll through your feed. Take the time to customize the content you see by following uplifting groups, pages with motivational messages, and tags that correlate to your recovery process.
- Question your own ideas of beauty. Often, our ideas of what’s beautiful are shaped by images that we see in the media which really aren’t based in reality at all. It is important that you question the “beauty” that you see on T.V. or in magazines, and recognize that most people don’t look like supermodels, nor should they! Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
- Have a keepsake, a reminder to keep you motivated. Keep something special around where you can see it and that will serve as a reminder about why you want to recover. Don’t ignore it when you are feeling bad or unmotivated, this is the time when you need to pay the most attention.
- Read recovery-oriented books. Finding these books can help inspire you and keep you motivated. Check out the health section of your local library or bookstore or get a recommendation from your mental health professional.
- Find a hobby. Get out there and live. Is there something that you used to love doing but have stopped? Is there something you have always wanted to try but have let your fear get in the way?
- Do things that nourish your soul. This could be anything from engaging in volunteer work to reading a great book. It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Experiment with different ways to nourish your soul and remember that a part of recovery is getting to know yourself all over again (or for the first time!).
- Hospitalization. Remember that there are options for hospitalization for an eating disorder through a clinic or hospital ward when it is medically or emotionally needed or helpful. Sometimes a brief hospital stay helps give you the “jumpstart” you need to start on the road to overcoming an eating disorder. Hospital stays can also be helpful if physically you are dangerously weak as a result of your eating disorder.
Something to Keep in Mind
The most important thing to know and remember about recovery is that it is possible. Not just for everyone else except you, but for everyone including you. It takes an enormous amount of persistence and courage, but it is possible and it is definitely worth it.
If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past, what was something you kept in mind to help you continue down the path to recovery? Please be mindful and use content warnings where appropriate and share in the comments below!