Coping with Triggers in Eating Disorder Recovery

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To those in eating disorder recovery, it can often feel like triggers are all around. It seems they can’t be escaped and they can’t be ignored—they come, unasked and unannounced, in the sounds and sights of everyday life.

You overhear one in the mall dressing room: “You look great – have you lost weight?” You see another on your coworker’s plate, a conspicuously small serving of the company lunch. You find yet another on your favorite restaurant menu, calorie counts in bold black font on every page.

For many, triggers are even louder and more glaring during the holidays. They may come in the form of a family get-together, where a difficult relative sidles up alongside you, or a fear food is passed around the dinner table. They may come when Grandma prepares your favorite dish differently this year, or your schedule is thrown off by holiday travel. Triggers can turn the most “wonderful” time of the year into the most overwhelming.

What are triggers?

Put simply, a trigger is a stimulus that incites an intense, uncomfortable, and frequently upsetting emotion. Triggers can be social, situational, environmental, psychological, or physiological—each has the power to “trigger” a negative reaction. Once triggered, individuals move quickly into a reactive state, ready to find distraction, relief, or escape from that uncomfortable emotion. Those with eating disorders feel a compulsive urge to act on disordered thoughts and feelings when triggered.

Like the eating disorder itself, the connection between a particular trigger and the response to it is irrational. Logically, of course, it is clear that skipping dinner is an ineffective, self-destructive response to a snide comment over breakfast, and purging a snack will not heal the hurt caused by a friend who won’t return your texts. Eating disorders serve as coping mechanisms, however, and as such often offer temporary comfort to those affected.

Recovery teaches that the comfort from an eating disorder is fleeting and ultimately destructive, and there are more effective, sustainable, and healthy reactions to triggers. In order to break the trigger-to-disordered-behavior response, those in recovery should first learn the triggers specific to them. With that knowledge, they can practice ways to manage the eating disorder urge that often follows.

Strategies for coping with triggers

Triggers will inevitably present themselves in your recovery. Though the disordered reaction to them often seems automatic and out of your control, you do have power in managing these urges. Consider the following steps to control your response to triggers and the eating disorder thoughts and feelings they provoke.

1. Identify your triggers. 

As with many acts of change, awareness is the first step. Identifying the events, people, and situations that trigger negative emotions will help you either avoid that particular trigger or prepare a way to handle it in the future.

In dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), a behavior chain analysis is used to help identify the triggers that led to a particular behavior. Using this technique, you journal the chain of environmental, social, and other events that precipitated a problematic behavior. In linking each event that preceded the behavior, the chain provides insight to the factors particularly triggering to you.

Common triggers for those in eating disorder recovery include:

  • Stepping on the scale
  • Clothes or grocery shopping
  • Specific numbers about weight, size, and food intake
  • Being surrounded by food
  • Conversations about diets and weight loss
  • Boredom, loneliness, and stress

2. Interrupt the connection between the trigger and the eating disorder behavior.

The disordered behavioral response to a trigger is just that—a response—and as instinctual and involuntary as it feels, it is a response you can delay. When faced with an urge to restrict, binge, or purge, suspend the desire to immediately give in. Pause. Make space for the feeling that exists between the trigger and the eating disorder behavior.

Delaying or altogether resisting the urge to engage in a disordered behavior is sometimes referred to as “urge surfing.” This approach recognizes that urges come, like waves, and eventually they too will go. Uncomfortable as it is, surfing an urge allows time and unpleasant feelings to pass. It’s a form of impulse control.

3. Engage in alternative behaviors.

Though eating disorder urges often feel alluring—maybe even impossible to resist—there are always other response options. Counter the negative, threatening feelings with self-compassion and gentleness. Replace the maladaptive eating disorder responses to triggers with healthier, adaptive ones.

Some suggestions include:

  • Find inspirational social media accounts to follow
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Knead putty
  • Listen to music
  • Try aromatherapy
  • Journal about your trigger
  • Practice yoga, gratitude, or other strategies for reducing anxiety

While substitutes for eating disorder behaviors, know that these activities likely will not feel like exact equivalents, especially at first. Taking a bath may not feel exactly the same as bingeing, and journaling will not feel just like purging. The more you pair a negative feeling with a healthier activity, however, the stronger that link becomes and more effective the response strategy is. These unpleasant thoughts and feelings decrease with time.

As seemingly uncontrollable as the eating disorder response can feel—and as ever-present as the triggers can seem—you are entirely capable of managing them. We hope you find power in naming and interrupting your particular triggers, and then finding healthier, kinder ways to respond to them.

If triggers are interfering with your eating or recovery, please reach out for support. Learn how our approach at The Emily Program has helped others recover from their eating disorders, and how we may help you or a loved one. Call 1-888-364-5977 or get started online.

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