More often than not, an eating disorder acts partly as a coping mechanism. Many who suffer from anorexia describe the need to “have control over something” in a world where they feel they otherwise do not. The restriction of food may provide a sense of security, structure, or order that feels reassuring. The “empty” feeling of a hungry stomach may become a measure of accomplishment for the day.
Eating, of course, naturally produces a pleasure response in our body. If we don’t find pleasure and reward in other aspects of our lives, food can fill that void. In binge eating behaviors, we see a more dramatic pursuit of using food for short-term relief from negative emotions or stressors.
These dynamics are essential to understanding the recovery process from an eating disorder. If we know that eating disorder behaviors – whether it’s restricting, bingeing, or purging – function as effective (yet unhealthy and damaging) coping skills, we need to account for their absence as someone moves towards recovery.
What would happen if we simply took a crutch away from someone who struggled to walk? The struggle would only worsen. The truth is, we all need metaphorical “crutches” to help support us in our lives, particularly in times of great stress. It’s important, however, to find relief from things that don’t threaten our personal health, as eating disorders severely do.
In eating disorder recovery, consider this question: what will replace the behaviors that have helped you cope? These behaviors may have been in place for weeks, months, or years, and abstinence from them will take time and effort. Consider what your alternatives are. What makes you feel happy or gives you a sense of comfort? Here’s a list of ideas, but know that the solutions to this problem are always individual and unique.
· Being around and talking with friends and family
· Spending time in nature
· Going for a walk
· Journaling or other writing
· Listening to or creating music
· Enjoying the company of a pet
· Creating art
· Sewing, knitting, or crocheting
Creative outlets are often the most effective options. Different situations may require different responses, so it’s best to keep a menu of effective coping skills that work for you. Keep in mind that the list of unhealthy coping skills is just as long as the list of healthy ones, so be sure that your strategy is one that benefits your personal health and wellness and moves you farther away from eating disorder behaviors.
If you would like to inquire about virtual nutrition counseling for eating disorders, please check out our First Bite Nutrition page.