Skip to main content
June 26, 2024

Techniques For Overcoming Eating Disorder Recovery Challenges

Techniques For Overcoming Eating Disorder Recovery Challenges

Your discharge from eating disorder treatment is in your rearview vision, and it shows. Your relationships with food, eating, and your body are in a markedly better place. You’re working daily to rebuild self-trust and compassion, and your connections with friends and family feel richer for it. You’re carving a personal identity entirely separate from your illness, returning to long-abandoned hobbies, seeking out new experiences, and goal-setting for the future. Life isn’t perfect, but you’re engaging with it in a way you never believed was possible when your eating disorder hijacked your time, thoughts, energy, and attention.

You’ve heard time and again that eating disorder recovery is a nonlinear journey. In fact, you’re told, the work is far from finished once your program ends. Even with the added meaning that recovery has injected into your life, you’re encountering your fair share of challenges and related intrusive thoughts. You want to continue on the path of your new life, but these struggles make you anxious about slipping back into disordered habits. It seems triggers can’t be escaped or ignored—how can you manage the urges that follow?

What Are Eating Disorder Recovery Triggers?

In eating disorder recovery, there are times, even after the disordered behaviors have ceased, that eating disorder thoughts and urges will return. While you might not be able to control the world around you, you can learn to control your response to the triggers you encounter.

Simply put, 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 put you into a reactive state where you’re ready to find distraction, relief, or escape from that uncomfortable emotion. In the presence of an eating disorder, triggers can make you feel a compulsive urge to act on disordered thoughts and feelings.

Eating disorders frequently act as maladaptive coping mechanisms for those who don’t have the language, perceived support, or healthy skills to process and manage intense or unpleasant emotions. Logically, we can recognize that skipping a meal is an ineffective, self-destructive response to seeing a highly curated photo of an Instagram model, and that purging a snack will not heal the stress caused by a fallout with a friend. However, in the context of an inciting trigger, these behaviors can offer a bit of fleeting comfort and relief.

Particular triggers can vary from person to person. Examples may include:

  • Toxic diet culture messaging
  • Weight stigma and weight-based bullying
  • Food-centered events and social settings
  • Changes in routine
  • Specific numbers relating to weight, size, and food intake
  • Seasonal change
  • Stepping on the scale
  • Conversations about food and body
  • Social media
  • Clothes or grocery shopping
  • The presence of former “fear foods”
  • Boredom, loneliness, and stress
  • Experiences of trauma
  • Life transitions, such as starting a new job or entering college
  • The loss of a loved one
  • A new medical diagnosis

Breaking the trigger-to-disordered behavior response calls for those in recovery to identify the events, people, and situations that specifically trigger their negative emotions. Recognizing your triggers in a non-triggered state is your best weapon to help either avoid that particular trigger or prepare a way to handle it without resorting to the eating disorder urges that may follow.

Managing Recovery Challenges

Recovery from an eating disorder means not only letting go of the disordered thoughts and behaviors, but also letting go of how the eating disorder served you. Eating disorder treatment teaches that comfort from an eating disorder is temporary and ultimately destructive. Moving beyond triggering feelings of overwhelm, guilt, and distress is possible through far more effective, sustainable, and healthy reactions.

Though the disordered reaction to triggers can feel automatic and out of your control, you do have the power to manage these urges. Consider practicing the following steps to handle your response to triggers that threaten your recovery.

1. Notice and Disarm the Trigger

When you encounter a trigger, what thoughts come to mind? What emotions do you feel? Pause and make space for the feelings between the trigger and the eating disorder behavior. When you take stock of the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing, ask yourself what you can do with them in the moment. Consider and do your best to honor what you need right then and there. The disordered behavioral response (e.g., restricting, bingeing, purging, or selective eating) is a response you can delay. Delaying or resisting the urge to engage in a disordered behavior is known as “urge surfing.” This approach recognizes that urges come and go like waves, knowing no matter how strong or unpleasant they feel, sitting with them allows them to pass with time.

For many, disarming the trigger may be avoiding the trigger entirely (at least for a while). It might be journaling about why this particular event, person, or situation felt triggering. Maybe it’s talking about the trigger with your therapist or a trusted friend, who can help alleviate feelings of isolation or fear, provide you with advice, and equip you with the confidence to encounter the trigger again.

2. Remind Yourself of the Brave Work You’ve Already Done

If you are in recovery, you have likely done some serious work to reach this point. Try to meet urges and thoughts sparked by your trigger with gentle reflections on how much you have already accomplished. Give yourself grace and compassion, reminding yourself that you are no longer bound to the confines of your eating disorder.

Try using an affirming coping statement such as:

  • “Having an urge does not mean that I have to do anything about it.”
  • “My emotions right now are uncomfortable, and I will get through them.”
  • “I deserve to be free from body shame.”
  • “It’s okay to feel [sad, angry, disappointed, etc.] about this situation. I can accept this moment exactly as it is.”

Employing distress tolerance in this way pulls from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) strategies often used in treatment, and can push you further into freedom from your eating disorder.

3. Engage in Alternative Behaviors

Though eating disorder urges can feel familiar and enticing, there are plenty of other response options to triggers that will support your recovery. Replace threatening, self-destructive responses with healthier, kinder behaviors.

Some suggestions include:

  • Find inspirational social media or online recovery accounts to follow
  • Take a bath
  • Journal about your triggers
  • Try aromatherapy
  • Go for a gentle walk
  • Watch a comforting TV show or movie
  • Listen to music
  • Express your feelings to a friend, loved one, or therapist
  • Practice yoga, meditation, gratitude, or other strategies for reducing anxiety

While alternative activities might not seem right for you at first, know that it takes time and practice to override the feelings associated with your previous behaviors. The more you pair a negative feeling with a positive activity, the stronger and more effective your response strategy becomes.

Long-Term Recovery Is Possible

Real-world stumbling blocks and setbacks are inevitable, but they don’t have to jeopardize your entire recovery. Though recovery is challenging—particularly outside the bubble of treatment—it offers tremendous growth opportunities. Armed with the right strategies, it is fully possible to protect your progress and set the stage for sustainable, long-term healing.

If triggers are interfering with your eating or recovery, please reach out for support. At The Emily Program Collaborative, we aim to equip our clients with a toolbox of accessible skills and strategies to preserve their recovery long after treatment ends. Learn how we can help by calling 888-364-5977 or by completing our online form.



Get help. Find hope.