A couple of days ago, I reblogged Surviving Anorexia’s post about how our eating disorders (or whatever coping mechanisms are your way) are our armour, that they do serve a purpose for us, and that when it comes to taking that armour off, we need to do it one bit at a time. Because it’s too overwhelming leaving ourselves totally unprotected and floundering with no new ways of coping to fill in the gaps left by it!
Two of my readers had a really insightful conversation in the comments section – Gel and Kath of My Funny Little Life discussed how one would go about peeling that armour off bit by bit – how do you tackle a little bit of your eating disorder at a time? I know I’ve always been an ‘all or nothing’ type person, and I know I’m not alone here – so just changing a little bit of something is actually quite a challenge
I was blown away reading this comment of Kath’s, and just as I replied to her saying I wished I could reblog her entire comment, I saw an email from her suggesting the same thing. Great minds hey? I don’t know about that – I totally think Kath is in a class of her own when it comes to that
Okay, I’ll try to write a helpful response to this.
From what you write, I read that you tried to tackle the ED mostly on the behavioral level: stopping the bingeing and purging by means of self-control and discipline. I’ve tried that many, many times, and always failed. I used to make “healthy eating plans” for myself (like, 1800 cals a day, nicely dispersed on several balanced meals), and the longest time I managed to stick with them was 5 weeks. Those were some of the most terrible weeks of my whole life, because I was at the edge of a panic attack 24 hours a day, and my allergy symptoms skyrocketed. (This was before I knew about my allergies, and I ate lots of “healthy” whole grain bread and dairy products.) When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I would always throw my well-meant plans out of the window and return to my chaotic eating patterns, immediately feeling emotional relief.
An ED is so much more than what you can see at the behavioral level! It also manifests itself at the level of thoughts and feelings. Looking for ED functions is a very good idea. For me, the main functions were these:
-emotion regulation: obsessing about food and being busy with ED rituals keeps emotions at bay
-stress regulation: if everyting got too much, I could just “give” myself into the ED, and didn’t have to pull myself together anymore (temporarily)
-tolerance of unpleasant body feelings: feeling “clean” after purging or by not-eating
-self-esteem: “I’m more valuable when I’m thin”
-general coping: “I’ll feel better when I lose some more weight”
-security needs: tragically true, but the more I got used to living with an ED, the more it gave me a feeling of security, because I knew what to expect
So you can already see some other things that are part of the ED armor: unpleasant emotions and feelings, dysfunctional coping strategies, self-esteem and body-image issues, insecurity in life, plus dysunctional thoughts, like the ones you described (I call them mind monsters): “I’ll never bear life when I don’t have the ED as an outlet” / “I’ll lose my mind and go up the walls” / “I won’t make it anyway, so I’ll just give up” / “I can have some more binges and purges before I stop ultimately” etc etc. These parts of the armor have to be put down as well, besides the behavioral changes.
What has helped me to tackle the ED at its multiple levels of manifestation were these things:
- mindfulness meditation: a meditation technique that works without a mantra, just by focusing on your breathing, and letting thoughts and feelings pass by without judging them (sounds easy but is not, haha) – this has helped me incredibly with emotion and stress regulation (I still don’t do longer sessions but countless short – a few seconds or minutes – practices during the day, to keep the bad stuff from building up, and I couldn’t bear doing longer sessions at first anyway)
– mindful eating: eating as an active mindfulness practice, i.e. doing nothing but eating your food and experiencing it with all your senses (how it looks, smells, tastes, etc) – *crucial* for me to develop a good relationship with food and eating again, although it was *very* hard in the beginning (I couldn’t do it longer than for the first one or two bites and then needed to turn on my laptop and read while eating, but it got better within a couple of weeks) – DON’T EAT WHILE DOING OTHER THINGS!
– learning to enjoy a moment and activities: mainly by means of mindfulness (see above)
– starting activities to improve crappy body feelings: everything that makes you feel more comfortable in your body is fine, but it should not be related to or aiming at weight reduction – for me: yoga, walks in the nature to catch sunlight and fresh air, bubble baths, sauna, massages, gym (I still have to work on the gym)
– improving self-esteem: learning or doing something that you find valuable and that is *not* ED related (for me: piano, now also guitar, and I’m starting to learn improvisation, songwriting, and composition – so everything that has to do with music, this also serves emotion and stress regulation purposes)
– social life: spending time with friends or family (people you like and who like you as you are and make you feel good when being in their company), also internet friends (great support for me to exchange thoughts with these lovely girls )
- time management: setting aside me-time (schedule it if necessary!), planning breaks, organizing unstructured time (evenings) by filling it with (planned) activities or relaxing time
– joyful activities: necessary to make your life worth living and to have something to look forward to – you’ll have a lot of spare time when you don’t engage in your ED, so you need something to do in that time (I find it helpful to do something creative, other people like gardening or so)
– changing my diet: since my ED behaviors are triggered by feeling unwell in my body, it was crucial that I learned about my allergies and sugar addictions, and stay away from those foods to get better – this means no dairy, no soy, no grains (except a little brown rice on occasion), generally carbohydrate-reduced, very little sugar, balanced meals with lots of veggies, protein, healthy fats
– cooking: related to changing my diet, because I can’t rely on what I get so easily, and have to prepare most things myself, and this has helped me as well to develop a good relationship with food again, and to see it as something nourishing and a source of energy – it also helped me to do something good for myself by putting effort and devotion into creating a meal
– being a friend to yourself: being kind with yourself and forgiving relapses and imperfections, caring for yourself and saying nice and encouraging things to yourself – imagine you were a good friend of yourself, and then treat yourself accordingly
I guess there are more things, but those are the ones that come to my mind at first. If you work on those things, you gradually deprive the ED of its functions. The idea is to build up alternative behaviors that serve the same funcions, but not in a destructive way. Then, it gets easier to tackle the behaviors.
But of course, the behaviors are still there. The strategy is to reduce the relevance of those behaviors to the minimum, so in the end there’s nothing left, no function, just plain, conditioned (during many years of “practice”) behaviors. Finishing off the rest of them *still* is a challenge, but much less of a challenge when those behaviors are the only ones that help you to get through your day. The last step is absolute and honest ACCEPTANCE – acceptance that there will be fear, there will be insecurity, there will be unpleasant emotions and body feelings. If you embrace and anticipate that, you’re equipped for what is actually to come, and you won’t be surprised anymore. You should learn to (literally) sit through those feelings from mindfulness practice.
Another thing you can do (a strategy my therapist has told me, and it works well with anxiety in general) is not to get carried away into an anxiety spiral by your thoughts and worries! The trick is to draw your attention on your *body* as soon as you feel the slightest sign of anxiety, away from your mind. It’s crucial to do that as early as possible, before the anxiety is getting too big, because then the chances are the greater that you can calm the anxiety down. Go through your whole body and try to locate where the anxiety is (in your stomach, your throat, your chest, etc), and how it feels there (tense, pulsing, etc). Then look for parts of your body where no anxiety is (if it’s just your ear lobes or the tip of your nose – anxiety is never in your whole body), and observe how it feels there. By doing so, the anxiety should already decrease. You can then actively try to carry the feeling from the non-anxiety regions of your body into the others, so you decrease the size of the anxiety regions starting at the periphery. The goal is *not* to reduce the anxiety to zero, but reduce it to a level that you can bear and that doesn’t trigger you into ED behaviors.
Just be aware that all of this is a process that takes time, and it won’t be linear. You’ll have relapses, and it won’t always be easy. The impulses to binge and purge will still be there, but you can learn not to act on them anymore, and then they’ll get less. And it won’t work every day, but the important thing is that it *does* work, and things get better overall. And it’s possible to get out of it completely.
Also, this is written from my personal perspective, and your way may look different. But probably you find something helpful in this response.
I think Kath’s insight is amazing and I’m so thankful that she’s shared it with us – top points from me. This has been one of THE all time most helpful things I’ve ever read about challenging the eating disorder behaviours – not by ripping them away and leaving yourself vulnerable, wide open to all you found it hard to cope with before, and without any positive strategies in place to take it’s place, but by working as much on what you are ADDING to your life as you are on what you are taking away! How many of us have the idea that our eating disorder is something we have to ‘stop doing’? I know this is how I’ve seen it for a long time. But it’s more important to build up your life, build up your supports, your activities, your coping strategies, your hobbies and passions, build up a foundation to keep you steady when this disease – something that HAS had a very real function for you in your life – is gone.
I hope you all found this as helpful as I have. Any thoughts?
And thank you to Kath for her smiley pictures! I couldn’t help but add a little bit of her unique flair to this post