Imagine you’re recovering from an eating disorder. After months of cognitive based therapy and rehabilitation, your energy is back, your mood is stabilizing, and you have more support than you could’ve ever dreamed. From everyone else’s perspective, it’s smooth sailing from here on out. From your perspective, it’s torture. No matter how hard you try to correct your negative thought patterns, coping with weight gain while recovering from an eating disorder can be one of the most difficult mental battles of your life. Each and every “you look so great/strong/healthy” can start to wear on you, and you’re suddenly reminded that you may not be the skinniest person in the room anymore. With your medical team gradually increasing the number they jot down in the Weight box of your physical evaluation form, feelings of repressed anxiety, self doubt, and self hatred can come rushing back to the surface.
Please note that the you I’m speaking to is actually a younger version of me, as I relapsed more than my fair share of times during my early-to-mid 20s. From all my years of counseling and research, I’ve realized that anorexia and bulimia aren’t really about food; they’re about using food to cope with pain, anger, fear, self-hatred, blame, and/or vulnerability. Whether you’re fueled by a need for control or comfort or by a desire to punish yourself, disordered eating is a coping mechanism. If you’re in eating disorder recovery, I can personally speak to the fact that at certain moments of frustration, confusion, and insecurity, everything you’ve worked up to on your road to recovery will be tested. However, with the right support, attitude, and coping skills, you can push through these road bumps with more confidence than you’ve ever known.The first step is figuring out what’s really eating you up inside and finding alternative ways to deal with it. If you ever find yourself struggling in eating disorder recovery, here are some commonly used strategies for coping with weight gain:
Surround yourself with support.
Life free from an eating disorder is so beautiful, so seek out the influences who will help you remember that in times of vulnerability. Go see your counselor, call your mom, or schedule an immediate coffee session with a friend. Allow yourself to be open, honest, and free with people you trust. Verbalize your feelings without fear of judgement, even if your current feeling is, “I gained five pounds, and I’m fat, and I hate myself.” Most importantly, stick with your eating disorder treatment plan, regardless of how much progress you seem to be making. Neglecting medical appointments, individual or group therapy sessions, or other components of your treatment can make you more susceptible to relapse, especially when the body starts returning to a healthy weight.
Obviously, not everyone is fortunate enough to have a strong stable support system from day one through day four thousand and infinity. If you find yourself feeling alone or on the verge of relapse, contact an expert from any one of the following organizations via their confidential hotline:
- NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association)- (800) 931-2237
- ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders)- (630) 577-1330
- Eating Disorders Anonymous– email@example.com
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline– 1-800-273-TALK
Learn to listen to your body.
Re-learn how to listen to your body. No matter how disconnected you may feel from yourself at a given moment, your body is your precious temple, and being kind to it is just as mentally therapeutic as it is healthy. One of the easiest ways to start this physical self discovery is by booking a massage, which can feel wonderful and comforting when your body is in the midst of such distressing physical change. Yoga therapy is another popular tactic and a regular inclusion as part of outpatient treatment for those recovering from eating disorders, as it provides an integrative approach to mental, emotional, and physical health.
An article written by nutritionist and yoga teacher Anastasia Nevin on Sonima.com explains, “The practice of moving consciously from the inside out can have a profound impact on someone struggling with body image and body awareness as these people tend to avoid being present. Yoga has been shown to help relieve depression, anger, and anxiety and to promote self-esteem and positive body image through the cultivation of non-judgment, confidence, and self-acceptance. A regular yoga practice can help rebuild strength and bone density that is damaged and lost with anorexia.”
Avoid triggers at all costs.
Everyone’s triggers are different, but there are some general preemptive strategies to avoid common triggers and improve your body image when weight gain becomes distressing. Here are a few coping strategies that worked particularly well for me during eating disorder recovery:
- Harness your confidence by wearing clothing that expresses who you are. Dress for comfort, not for show.
- Get rid of your scale. Right now. Put it in the trash or donate it to charity. If your weight needs to be monitored, leave that up to your team of medical professionals and only your team of medical professionals.
- Get up and move after eating bigger meals. Go for a twenty or thirty minute walk to get out of the house and avoid the temptation to purge if it’s lingering.
- Trade in fashion magazines for fiction. Unless you’re positive you can flip through Vogue and Elle without feeling inadequate, throw them all in your recycling bin until you feel confident that you can separate fantasy from reality.
- Avoid an unnecessary preoccupation with food by sticking to a regular eating schedule. Work with a dietician or nutritionist to ensure your body is getting everything it needs, and commit to eating with friends or sending photos of your cooked food to your family to hold yourself accountable.
Repeat your affirmations.
Think of all the non-physical things you like about yourself and write them down in a notebook. Supplement entries and add new inspiration daily. Include your talents, skills, and achievements, as well as all the bad qualities you’ve outgrown or escaped altogether. Start each day with a series of one, three, or five positive affirmations, and read them out loud while standing in place. This prepares your inner self to receive the affirmation with an open mind and an open heart. Repeating your chosen affirmations on a regular basis can help you to reverse negative thinking, develop new strengths, and foster self-awareness. If you start feeling insecure about your body, read a few of the entries you documented only days prior and refocus on all the inner qualities you’re most proud of. You can also use any of the following affirmations as a guide (or read One Full Year of Affirmations here):
- I like myself today. I am aware of possibilities for improvement, but I don’t want to be anyone else.
- I cannot see the outcome of the journey, but I can take the next step.
- I am healthy.
- Today, I can bring awareness to my self-talk and replace all the negative thoughts with positive thoughts as soon as they appear in my mind.
- I am a responsible and trustworthy person.
- I can only find out by trying.
- There is a purpose and value to each day of my life.
- Today I know I have the right to be alive, happy, and full of joy.
- I deserve love and respect as I am.
Internationally renown self-help guru Louise Hay recommends doing daily mirror work, where you read positive affirmations out loud to yourself in the mirror daily. A passage from her book You Can Heal Your Life reads, “Mirror work is ver powerful. As children we received most of our negative messages from others looking us straight in the eye and perhaps shaking a finger at us. Whenever we look in the mirror today, most of us will say something negative to ourselves. We either criticize our looks or berate ourselves for something. To look yourself straight in the eye and make a positive declaration about yourself is, in my opinion, the quickest way to get results with affirmations.” Depending on the limiting belief(s) at play, repeating statements like “I am willing to change” or “I am enough” or “I am worthy of love” can be instrumental in reversing negative thought patterns over time.
Fill your life with overwhelming positivity.
The best way to cope with and counteract self-doubt is by filling your life with overwhelming positivity. Make time for activities that bring you undeniable joy and fulfillment. Don’t make time for toxic influences or activities that can trigger anxiety. Here are some ideas for treating yourself to a little extra sunshine (you can read the full list of 25 simple ways to practice self-love here):
- Treat yourself. Buy yourself fresh flowers or book a massage. You deserve them, and it’s okay to treat yourself.
- Clean out your fridge and fill it with fresh, healthy, and delicious foods.
- Play. Pull out your board games, download a mindless app on your phone, or go ride a rickety carnival roller coaster. Have fun, smile, dance, and laugh. Let yourself feel and express the joy of life.
- Self pamper by spending a few minutes daily massaging your feet or painting your fingernails. Tune into your own frequency and show yourself some physical, positive self-love.
- Make a new bucket list and post it on your fridge. Develop some long-term plans or goals that’ll keep you looking forwards, not backwards.
- Read a great new book.
- Volunteer once in the coming week.
In honor of World Mental Health Day, I’d like to share that when “I” is replaced by “We,” even illness becomes wellness. If you’re going through a particularly dark time, remember you are loved, and you’re never alone. I’ll admit that I read this passage, as well as many others, from Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life over and over again when disordered eating thoughts seem to get the best of my physical, mental, or emotional growth. I recommend you try it, too.
In the infinity of life where I am, all is perfect, whole, and complete. The past has no power over me because I am willing to learn and to change. I see the past as necessary to bring me to where I am today. I am willing to begin where I am right now– to clean the rooms of my mental house. I know it does not matter where I start, so I now begin with the smallest and the easiest rooms, and in that way, I will see results quickly. I am thrilled to be in the middle of this adventure, for I know I will never go through this particular adventure again. I am willing to set myself free. All is well in my world.
These strategies for coping with weight gain were inspired by the following sources: “The Role of Yoga in the Treatment of Eating Disorders” by Anastasia Nevin | “Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery: Tips for Overcoming Anorexia and Bulimia” by Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. | “Eating Disorder Affirmations: A Simple Tool for Developing New Strengths and Self-Awareness” by Mirasol | “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay