Eating Disorder Recovery: Coping with Bumps on the Winding Path

Sunset over green hill with winding dirt roadNow is the time to address the eating and food issues you experience, you’ve decided. You’re committed to living life free from an eating disorder. You are determined to take charge by seeking help: finding a therapist, attending support groups, entering a residential treatment program, and so on.

When we first feel ready to tackle a Thing that has dominated so much of our life space, we tend to experience an initial rush of adrenaline, courage, uncertainty, and yes, even fear. These feelings are often powerful motivating forces, and they can allow us to hit the ground running. But as most of us know, the spike of determination often comes and goes. It may peter out during difficult times, as we attempt to confront the daily challenges of living in recovery, and diminish during easier times, when we finally feel as if we’ve turned enough of a corner to say goodbye to the eating disorder for good. This is all part of recovery.

What Does Recovery Mean to You?

To be able to work toward recovery, it’s first important to consider how you view recovery. Many individuals newly on this path may envision a day in the future where they are entirely free from any disordered eating habits, behaviors, or thoughts—for the rest of their lives. This is a wonderful vision, and there may be some individuals who do reach this level of recovery. For most people who are coping with eating disorders, however, the reality is very different.

In my experience, it is helpful to see recovery as a road, path, or journey that has no destination. Viewing recovery in this way can help remove the pressure of an unidentifiable “end point” and allow individuals to celebrate more fully the meaningful moments of recovery. A week without behaviors is just as important as an hour without disordered thoughts. Viewing recovery as a long-term process rather than a finite moment in time can also allow us to be more forgiving of ourselves. When setbacks are experienced—and they most likely will be— they can then be viewed as a normal and anticipated part of the road, similar to a bump or detour, rather than a devastating and insurmountable event.

Coping with Detours on the Road to Recovery

The bumps, setbacks, and high points we experience are all normal parts of the recovery process. What makes all the difference is the way we handle them.

Most eating disorder recovery programs and mental health professionals who specialize in working with those who experience eating and food issues work to prepare the people they treat for these detours. People who are prepared for setbacks and have the tools to handle them are often able to get back on track more easily. The bumps are just that—bumps, not earth-shaking upsets.

A recovery setback can take many forms: straying from a meal plan, noticing less-than-helpful thoughts creeping back into daily life, engaging in disordered eating behaviors once again, and so on. Whatever the setback, there are ways to help keep it from becoming full-blown relapse.

First, it’s important to recognize a setback has occurred and tell someone about it. This step may seem like a no-brainer, but the amount of shame involved with setbacks can be massive. The realization that disordered behaviors are occurring once again can feel devastating, especially if recovery has progressed significantly up to that point. Feelings of shame can make it tempting to buy into the flawed logic that if you don’t point it out, maybe no one else will notice, and you may feel like it’s easier to simply ignore the setback.

Radically accepting an emotion state doesn’t make it disappear … This technique is all about removing the power of the struggle to allow you to focus energy on moving forward. You acknowledge your feelings as valid but also recognize they are not all-encompassing. You are giving yourself permission to feel but to move forward with a plan at the same time. 

But when you realize you have detoured, it is crucial to take the time to check in with yourself about how recovery is going. Take some deep breaths, slow down for a few minutes, and reflect on how you and your recovery goals are working together. Try picturing yourself as a vehicle: you can’t drive around forever without periodic tune-ups and gas refills to make sure everything is still working appropriately. Remember setbacks are normal and expected, and frame them as such. Some people find it easier to set time aside each week for this practice or engage in regular talk therapy or support groups even after formal treatment has been completed. It can be difficult to tell someone about a setback, but know that by taking this step you are once again taking control and ownership of your recovery process and informing the eating disorder that its power over your life is limited.

It’s also essential we manage the emotional repercussions of a setback. One way we can do this is by engaging in radical acceptance. What is radical acceptance? To put it simply, radical acceptance means accepting the reality of our emotions instead of fighting the feelings that arise within us. Talking about perceived failure typically elicits strong emotions. Shame, we’ve already discussed, but it’s not the only one—fear, disappointment, embarrassment, and anger are also likely to surface. These emotions can feel overwhelming at times, making it difficult to see a clear path forward. When we are most overwhelmed, radical acceptance can be helpful.

In practice, radical acceptance may sound a little like this: “I feel embarrassed I’m using these behaviors again, but who wouldn’t be? I’ve worked so hard to find recovery, but now it seems like I’ve lost it. I also know I’ve recognized my setback, and I have a plan to speak with my therapist tomorrow. I know how to get back on track.”

You may recognize from this example that radically accepting an emotion state doesn’t make it disappear, and you’re absolutely correct. This technique is all about removing the power of the struggle in order to allow you to focus energy on moving forward. You acknowledge your feelings as valid but also recognize they are not all-encompassing. You are giving yourself permission to feel but to move forward with a plan at the same time. Isn’t that liberating?

When we view recovery as a long, winding path full of bumps, ditches, hills, and valleys, we can start to release ourselves from the burden of perfection. Less pressure to be perfect, in turn, allows getting back on track to be seen as an obtainable goal. Using this more flexible definition of recovery, in combination with regular check-ins and open acknowledgement of setbacks, can help you regroup and reset more quickly. Practicing radical acceptance when a setback occurs can further bolster your ability to view your reaction to a setback without shame and help you stick with a positive plan to move forward on your journey to recovery.

References:

  1. Hayes, S. C., Follette, V. M., Linehan, M. (Eds.). (2004). Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
  2. Karges, C. (2016, August 9). Can I maintain long-term recovery from an eating disorder after suffering relapses? Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/can-i-maintain-long-term-recovery-from-an-eating-disorder-after-suffering-relapses

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mandy Rubin, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lisa o

    lisa o

    September 28th, 2017 at 2:41 PM

    sharing this with my sister as my niece is currently in recovery and it seems like for every two steps forward she takes three steps back, so i know that there is a lot of frustration within the whole family right now.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    September 30th, 2017 at 12:46 PM

    Lisa – thank you for sharing. Yes the entire family and social support system can be impacted while finding recovery. I hope this article will serve as a reminder that they are not alone.

  • Riley

    Riley

    September 29th, 2017 at 7:40 AM

    It is a journey that I would say many people struggle with.
    I think that it is pretty possible that we are all looking to take a trip with the destination in mind, we don’t want to have to pay attention to all that much on the way.
    The thing is with recovering from an eating disorder is that it is all about seeing those bumps in the road, acknowledging those and confronting them.
    Of course there are going to be those times just like in any recovery process that they can feel too overwhelming to try to climb. That is when you have to dust yourself off and try again.
    One day you will for sure make it over the top.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    September 30th, 2017 at 12:48 PM

    Hi Riley, thank you for your comment and wise words. I agree that with the right perspective we absolutely can continue to dust ourselves off and find our path to lasting recovery.

  • Lawson

    Lawson

    September 30th, 2017 at 11:34 AM

    Any recovery process is bound to be complete with highs and lows. You cant only be willing to celebrate the highs if you are not willing to recognize and work through the lows.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    September 30th, 2017 at 12:50 PM

    Lawson, thank you for your insight. I agree that celebrations can be sweeter when acknowledging all of the steps – positive and negative – that it takes to get there.

  • lisa o

    lisa o

    October 2nd, 2017 at 2:08 PM

    I talked with my sister today. Now my niece is severely dehydrated because she has been taking copious amounts of diuretics.

  • Mandy Rubin LPC

    Mandy Rubin LPC

    October 3rd, 2017 at 10:26 AM

    Lisa, I am so sorry to hear that your niece continues to struggle. Please encourage her to contact her closest Eating Disorder treatment center or visit the ER at her closest hospital. Eating Disorder treatment centers can be located: nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-treatment/treatment-and-support-groups

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