Eating Disorder Recovery During Stressful Times

Emily Formea

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, or symptom use. Please use discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed. 

Emily Formea is a writer and coach passionate about eating disorder recovery, food freedom, and self-love. She is the author of Gaining a Life: The Untold Story of My Eating Disorder & Recovery, available on Amazon, and the host of the To The Girl podcast. To learn more about Emily, visit her website, and find her on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Your eating disorder THRIVES off stress.

Don’t believe me?

When do you feel most likely to restrict? When do you feel most likely to binge? When do you feel most likely to make yourself sick, start a new diet, limit your food, binge in secret, weigh yourself, weigh yourself again?

When you are stressed, my love. I know this because I do the exact same thing.

During times of stress, we want to have a constant. It’s human nature. We like routine, we like constants, we like ‘norms’ and ‘usuals’—and if you’re a bit more wound-up than the average person, like I am, then you also like control.

We love being in control. It brings us a sense of balance and self-management. When we feel most out of control with our emotions or the world around us, we want to control something to make up for it.

Enter your eating disorder.

Eating disorders bring a false perception of control. They make us feel like we’re safe, we’re accomplished, we’re secure. Because they trick us into believing that control is synonymous with calculation.

We track our food.

We track our steps.

We track our ounces of water.

We track our weight.

And we believe that the more ‘perfect’ we can make all of this, the more ‘perfect’ we are in return. But your eating disorder doesn’t tell you something. It leaves out a very specific point: You are not your diet. You are not your body. Therefore, these ‘goals’ we set for our diets, body weight, frame, size, restrictions, etc. have nothing to do with ourselves when it comes to happiness, worthiness, confidence, etc.

Because just as you are not your disorder, you also are not your disorder’s ‘accomplishments.’

See, many people who struggle with eating disorders love to accomplish. We are high-achievers with even higher expectations placed on ourselves BY ourselves, and another reaction to stress is feeling like we are not ‘enough.’

When we’re stressed, our coping mechanism is to control. Restrict. Limit our diets or bodies in the hopes of feeling safe AND successful.

Because success is a distraction, as well.

We focus on ‘accomplishing’ what ED tells us to strive for. This takes away our stress, only briefly, because we redirect our focus on goal setting and goal crushing.

Sound familiar? That’s because this is how I coped with stress for almost a decade.

I would feel stressed. This would trigger me to run away from this emotion. I didn’t want to feel stress or pain or fear or disappointment. I would preoccupy my mind with another task, something I could focus all my attention on, something that would take a lot of time and energy, something that would distract me from the negative emotions I didn’t want to be feeling AND something that I thought would bring positive ones.

Shrinking my body.

It’s a simple coping mechanism. But just because it’s simple to understand, that doesn’t mean it’s simple to change.

So, how do we change this coping mechanism when we feel stress, especially when the world around us is feeling stressed as well?

Understand that Stress is Normal

I used to feel CRAZY when I would feel stressed! I felt like I wasn’t supposed to ever feel nervous or anxious. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone because everyone around me seemed to be as calm as a cucumber. (They aren’t, trust me, and you’re allowed to experience stress and seek support for it whether others are calm or not.) Phone a friend, talk to a loved one, write about it in a journal or even say it out loud! I think something to realize when it comes to stress is that the longer and harder you bottle it up, the longer and harsher it is to live with it. Release it! Get that anxious energy out! Life is truly about energy, and if you’re holding on to negative or painful vibrations of it, why not release them to fill that space with love? Don’t hold stress in. Why? You don’t want it in the first place! So, let it go and let it go quickly!

Let it Go!

Moving your body and changing your environment may help alter your mental state. When we feel stressed, we tend to breathe shorter and more rapidly. We tense our muscles. We focus on what we can’t change or don’t want to happen, and all of these physiological changes put our bodies in a state of fight or flight. I like to stretch when I start to feel anxious or stressed out. Just like physically talking about stress releases the energy around it, so does physical movement! Take a walk, read a book, even try just sitting up straighter and breathing more deeply. This can calm your body, which in turn can signal to your brain that you’re safe and there’s no danger.

Reality Check

Remember how I talked about how eating disorders deceive us into believing we have control and our lives are so much better when we are in the depths of our disorder? Remind yourself what it actually felt like when you were really struggling. Write down the feelings, experiences, maybe even the missed opportunities your disorder caused over the time it hung around, and keep this list handy somewhere. I like to keep it in my phone so that when I’m faced with that initial feeling of panic and it triggers me to want to return to my eating disorder’s ways, I can look at my reality checklist and see that this wasn’t the answer back then and it won’t be this time either!

 Find a New Coping Mechanism

This tip goes hand-in-hand with gratitude, but now is an incredible time to focus on your own mental health, hobbies, interests, self-care, etc.! During times of stress, it is SO important to take care of ourselves completely! That means our physical bodies, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual, social, AND—I want to add—creative health! Creativity is one of life’s greatest blessings, I swear by that, so find something that you have ALWAYS wanted to do or learn or create or design, and do it! I think we live in a society that has somewhat brainwashed us into believing that having hobbies or interests purely for fun is a waste of time because time = productivity = money. This is not true! Do things just for you! I’ve taken up knitting because I have always wanted to learn how to knit, but also ALWAYS told myself that it was silly or a waste of time if I wasn’t the world’s best knitter or something. Every time you’re faced with stress or a moment of panic and your mind is searching for a distraction, choose your new scapegoat. Maybe it’s reading or writing or painting or learning Spanish, but instead of turning to eating disorder rituals or old habits, turn to your new hobby or interest. The more you do this, the more the neural pathway in your brain will redirect your trigger to forms of self-celebration and support in times of stress!

I hope these tips help you, and I want to send each and every one of you so much love! Remember, even though sports, holiday parties, gym memberships, etc. are canceled for a short time, YOUR EATING DISORDER RECOVERY IS NEVER CANCELED, and neither is mine.

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