the function of emotions

Oftentimes, people with eating disorders experience emotions as uncomfortable, distressing, and seemingly unnecessary. One effective (if mal-adaptive) way of numbing those emotions is by engaging in eating disordered behaviour, such as restricting, binge/purging, purging, and binge eating. 

While emotions can be unpleasant at times, they serve an important purpose. Emotions are important for communicating with and influencing others. When others can determine your emotions from facial expressions and/or body language, it can influence how they react to you and thus the relationships you form and maintain. Neutral words and facial expressions leave people uncertain and they can fill in that uncertainty with their own interpretations which may or may not be an accurate reflection of what you're actually feeling or what your needs are. This can be harmful to our relationships with others.

To quote the article below, "emotions prepare for, and motivate action." There is an action urge connected to specific emotions that are hard-wired, and you will automatically take action without thought.  Emotions can also motivate people to do things they need to do. Emotions can be self-validating, and having the ability to have your emotions recognized and responded by others to can be a very validating experience. These needs are explained in more detail in The Functions of Emotions.  

Emotions are also thought to shape the way we experience the world.

It's all very well to learn the functions of emotions, but what if you don't know what you are feeling? How do you figure that out. There is a condition called alexithymia which describes this difficulty in assessing and determining what one is feeling. We spend a long time, some of us decades, numbing out emotions with eating disorder behaviours and recovering physically from that is not going to magically teach us how to feel.  This is one place where it is important to have access to a therapist. In the interim, all I can offer you is some feelings "charts." This is a favourite because it teaches you how to identify a feeling based on its intensity at the moment.

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mindfulness & distraction

Mind States

In addition to emotion-management, there are also three "Mind States" used in DBT: the reasonable mind (logic, facts and figures), the emotions mind (thoughts and behaviours are governed by strong emotions, and the wise mind, which combines the other two together, allowing you to make decisions or do things by balancing the reasonable and emotional minds.  Wise mind allows you to both use logic or other reasonable mind tool, and emotions, which results in making better decisions about actions and behaviours.  They are described further here

 Marsha Lineham has a number of videos available, and she has a number of videos available in which she describes in detail the quality of non-judgmental awareness, for example, Marsha Lineham - Mindfulness Skills and DBT V.  Lineham was the original developer of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is a highly effective treatment program for some individuals. While Lineham did not develop mindfulness (it has been around for centuries in many religions,) she was able to construct it as a key element underpinning many recovery-oriented skills.

She describes two skills: WHAT and HOW.

"What" involves observing, describing and participating. Observing is focusing on one thing at a time (just noticing without describing.) It can be external (something you can see, hear, touch) or internal (your breath, your heartbeat, etc.) If you find thoughts crossing your mind as you observe, just observe the thought and allow it to pass as you get back to what you were observing.  It sounds easy, but emptying the mind of thoughts, fears, and emotions is harder than you think. It takes practice and patience.

Describing can also be internal or external; you can do it without touch, but if what you were observing, a string of beads, for example, you are welcome to use the experience of touch to further inform your description of "what.” It involves observing and then describing what you are observing.

Differentiate between thought and fact. For example, if you are describing your cat and her ears are laid back, a thought is that she is angry, whereas a fact is just that her ears are back. Describe only what you can see.

Participating is becoming one with an activity, losing self-consciousness. It is mindfully and non-judgmentally doing one thing at a time and by doing so, becoming one with where you are in the moment.

"Ok, but I don't have the time during a busy, stressful day to stop and do these things."  Maybe you could talk to your employer about providing quiet spaces where any employee can go to do what they need in the moment. In the real world, however, these quiet spaces aren’t always readily available. Instead, you might try some of the 1-Minute Mindfulness Exercises, see which ones work, and focus on doing those.  You can do them anywhere: in the grocery store, in a waiting room, in school, at work, and so forth.  If these don't work for you, search for others, including books, websites, and apps that feel like a better fit.

DISTRACTION

There may be times when you are in a state of such high emotion that while mindfulness would help you calm, you just don't have the wherewithal to work on it in that moment.  This is a turning point, where you can choose to use mal-adaptive coping mechanisms or where you can practice distraction, instead.  If you are in a bad way, you might find it a bit uplifting to create a "distraction box".  Pick a box that you like, or get one and paint it over so you like how it looks.  Inside the box, you place items that will help you with distraction; for example, a small phone book of friends that you can call anytime, and just sit and chat with them for as long as possible.  Maybe even make plans to do something.  You might have a colouring book; some recent research indicates that colouring is even better at creating a state of mindfulness than practicing mindfulness! Get a book you like, some great markers, pencil crayons, crayons, or paint, and just let yourself immerse in colouring.  If you are not at risk of purging, have a nice soap, maybe some tea lights, and some nicely scented creams, and have a hot bath.  Or get yourself outside if you feel you can avoid compulsively exercising. Start a self-care box. Put in some CDs you like, DVDs of your favourite shows or Netflix and cope, a hot water bottle, grab an old favourite book, write some encouragement cards for yourself that you can pull out when needed: the list is endless, but it will be your box, only for you to use for distraction.

One more aspect of distraction is not flogging a dead horse.  I recommend you try an activity and assess how you are feeling at the end of 10 minutes.  If you find that the activity is effectively calming most of your high emotion, keep doing it.  If not, go to the next thing in the box, and give that 10 minutes.  Keep going until you are feeling calmer and less agitated, and that might be a good time to give mindfulness a shot.


radical acceptance

Radical acceptance is one of my favourite and most used skills.  It enables me to stop hurting myself by refusing to accept something I cannot change - yet, or possibly ever.  

Radical Acceptance is the skill of accepting nonjudgmentally the things you can't change.

You need RADICAL ACCEPTANCE in order to make a change.
We cannot change that which we don't first accept.

ACCEPTANCE is seeing reality for what it is, even if you don't like it.
ACCEPTANCE does NOT mean giving up or giving in.
ACCEPTANCE can be to acknowledge, recognize and endure.
Deciding to tolerate the moment is ACCEPTANCE.
ACCEPTANCE turns suffering you can't cope with into pain you can cope with
ACCEPTANCE is the only way out of hell.

Three Myths about Acceptance:

  1. IF YOU REFUSE TO ACCEPT SOMETHING, IT WILL MAGICALLY CHANGE.

  2. IF YOU ACCEPT A PAINFUL SITUATION, YOU WILL BE WEAK

  3. IF YOU ACCEPT YOUR PAINFUL SITUATION, YOU ARE ACCEPTING A LIFE OF PAIN.

What makes it so difficult to Radically Accept?

WILLFULNESS?

  • Imposing one's will on reality.

  • Refusing to tolerate a situation.

  • Trying to change or fix a situation that cannot be changed or fixed.

  • Refusing to do what is needed.

  • Sitting on the sidelines of life and refusing to play.

  • It is the "terrible twos" - "No! No! No!" [as if refusing to accept a situation, it will magically change.]


WILLINGNESS?

  • Accepting what is.

  • Responding effectively or appropriately to the current situation.

  • Doing what works.

  • Doing just what is needed in the current moment. EVEN IF IT SUCKS.

Steps to take when willfulness holds you back.

  1. Notice it.

  2. Radically accept it.

  3. Turn your mind towards acceptance and willingness.

(TURNING THE MIND has to happen over and over again - you can't "radically accept" that you're sick once and then you never have to struggle with nonacceptance and willfulness again. Turning the mind is just noticing that you've been distracted and turning back again to what you know.)

This article on Radical Acceptance below explores radical acceptance with examples of how it supported the author in her own life, and reiterates that we can choose pain by choosing to radically accept a difficult situation, or we can choose suffering by refusing to do so. Suffering is pain that does not diminish.  Acceptance of pain allows it to fade; perhaps never to disappear, but eventually, to not occupy our every waking thought.  The poem that precedes the actual article is a long-time favourite of mine.

This article on Radical Acceptance explores the options to radical acceptance and how some choices cause suffering, which lasts as long as you refuse to accept something you do not like, or that isn't fair, or you weren't expecting, and so forth.  Practice radical acceptance, allow yourself to feel the pain, and sooner or later, you can let your mind touch that pain without feeling the sharpness of it as much anymore.


Self-compassion is a really important skill to learn and practice consistently in your life, not just when you are struggling with your eating disorder.  Are you feeling badly about your grade on a paper?  Self-compassion.  Was someone mean or rude to you?  Self-compassion.  Are you feeling left out?  Self-compassion.  Are you just feeling blue?  Self-compassion.

Ok, ok, but just what is self-compassion?  It is the sharing of love, empathy, support and kindness that you would offer a friend or loved one in pain, except that you offer it to yourself.  It is treating yourself kindly and gently validating your feelings whether or not they are actually true.  

Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in the area identifies three components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment

  2. Common humanity vs isolation, and

  3. Mindfulness vs over-identification.

Neff describes on her website that self-compassion is:

“...having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”

Fine so far, right?  But how do you actually treat yourself with self-compassion?  You hear that little voice that pipes up when you feel like you are a failure because "you aren't good enough when you get an average grade on something or fail to get a hard-earned promotion.”  Be kind.  Reassure yourself that the voices of self-criticism doesn't matter, because nothing takes away your integral worth and the fact that you deserve to be treated with kindness. Instead of punishing yourself, like, say, doing an extra hard workout because you binged, allow yourself to accept that you binged and to still be kind to yourself.  Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend or a child in similar circumstances: would you tell them they deserve to "fail" or they deserve to be punished?  Probably not, but why are you any less deserving of that same gentle compassion?

Head over to self-compassion.org for more information, and also, for a short test that identifies your own self-compassion in five spheres.

self-compassion


Anxiety is one of the emotions that can keep us trapped in our eating disorder: food anxiety, weight anxiety, family dinner anxiety, restaurant/food court anxiety, work/school anxiety, life and death anxiety.  It is important to work on changes you can make to your surroundings, routine, and emotion management to develop the resilience that will support your recovery efforts.  

Technically, anxiety is apprehension over an upcoming event. We anticipate the future with sometimes scary predictions that don’t necessarily have any basis in truth. In everyday life, anxiety’s physical and emotional symptoms can mean an increased heart rate, poor concentration at work and school, sleeping problems, and just being a total Crankosaurus Rex to family, friends, and co-workers.

Everyone feels anxiety about something or other at some point in their lives. Anxiety, and all emotions, are a way of reacting to and communicating with the world around us. As such, emotions serve important functions. But it’s important to remember that an emotion is not a fact and anxiety is not a guarantee that something awful might happen to you if you do/don't do whatever anxiety is telling you to do.  Fear of food - under any disorder - is a case in point. For many of us, exhibiting fear of eating with family or in public, or going to a restaurant, often comes from anticipating one of two outcomes: first, that you will swell up like a balloon overnight if you allow yourself to eat anything in these circumstances, and second, that once you start eating, you will never stop, leading again to the first outcome. The first outcome is impossible and even if it was, weight is not something that should be feared, and the second is unlikely in most familial and social situations. People who struggle with bingeing may find themselves fighting the urge to binge, but most often, prefer to binge in private because of the sense of damaging shame that is felt with this particular behaviour.  So we superimpose outcomes that are unlikely and while anxiety-provoking, aren’t actually harmful to us when we need to learn and practice skills to result in the least likelihood of anxiety, or if anxiety is experienced, positive ways of coping with it so that we are able to get on with our days and live fuller, happier, healthier lives.

In 15 Ways to Beat Anxiety Now, author Giuliana Hazelwood provides concrete and longer term ways to reduce anxiety.  

But what about those days when you are in the middle of overwhelming anxiety?  What do you do then? I try to work on bringing myself back into the present, away from the worrying and bickering going on inside my head. I start by assessing what is going on with my body.  Typically, my shoulders are tense, and my abdomen too.  I make a conscious effort to lower my shoulders, and try to relax both shoulders and abdomen.  I will also notice that my breathing is shallow and rapid. While it is one thing to tell you to breathe deeply in and out, that can be a bit difficult when you feel immobilised by anxiety.   

Paced breathing is one of the skills I try to practice to control my breathing; it not only gives you something different to focus on, it also contributes strongly to anxiety levels.  There are a number of ways paced breathing can be practiced, but in essence, it is about breathing in deeply - say to 4 deep breaths - and breathing out for longer than you breathed in, in this instance five breaths.  Or you could use five in/six out.  One way to practice this skill so it comes more naturally to you is, where possible, to "walk" your breathing; that is, to count your breathing by the number of steps you take (don't hurry or run).  So, take five breaths to five steps and breathe out over the course of six steps, as an example.  

Paced breathing still works if you are not able to move around. Perhaps you are at work or catching the bus home?  Make sure your entire body is relaxed and maybe let your head drop a little if you don't want anyone to see what you are doing.  From there count inside your head to four or five breaths in, and five or six breaths out.  Practice this meaningfully and without judgment; just focus on your breathing and counting.  You can download a paced breathing app on to your cell phone, like this one, and numerous others listed on Google.

Another thing I do when anxious is the 5-4-3-2-1 sense inventory.  Start off by naming five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can count, two you can smell, and if possible, one you can touch.  After five, do it again, but to the count of four (yes, you can count ones you counted before, but also let new experiences into your senses). Then three, two, and one, and do an inventory of how anxious you are.

My final advice that I use for grounding myself is to look around my surroundings and name the items my eyes fall on; I might notice the chair sitting across from me, some ceramic art my daughter did when she was very young, my cat, the silver box we use to store cards in, and so forth. In a sense, naming them is owning them, or re-claiming my surroundings, and it brings me into the present moment where I am better able to quiet those "voices" in my head that tell me lies that "this" will happen if I do "that.”

Remember, all anxiety reduction methods should be tried with curiosity, and not with judgment. These are skills, and like any skill, they require practice over and over, even when you are not anxious, so that you have learned the skill for when you really need it.

To get some more ideas from experts, you can check out these sites: Ten Tools That Help Relieve Panic Attacks, and Driving Peace. 

managing anxiety, distress, & worry


"Boundaries are not selfish. They aren’t overindulgent or evidence that you’re too sensitive, and they aren’t weakness. Boundaries are conditions that allow you to take care of yourself; conditions that give you the means to survive and keep from sinking. They’re circumstances that honor your needs and respect your feelings. Limits that YOU get to decide on; limits that are inherently valid, regardless of how they compare to anyone else’s. You deserve to create a space for yourself that feels safe and supportive. You deserve to exist under terms that don’t harm you; terms that allow your best self to come through. Even if other people don’t understand; even if it makes them feel angry or rejected or sad — your boundaries are necessary and they matter. Their needs matter too, and it’s not wrong to want to make shifts to accommodate both — but the truth is that you can’t take care of anyone else if your own needs aren’t being met. You don’t have to explain your boundaries. You don’t have to justify them, and you don’t need anyone’s approval. You need to believe that you’re someone worth taking care of, and you need to trust that if anyone is entitled to your protection and care, it’s you." — Danielle Koepke

What Are Boundaries? 

Boundaries are rules or limits we set in relationship with others that are specific to each individual (i.e., one person may give hugs to people they may have just met, but another person prefers to hug only people they are close to, still others do not wish to be touched or hugged at all). Someone with healthy boundaries is able to say no, or yes, depending on what they need. They recognise their boundaries and honor them. Someone with unhealthy boundaries may look two ways: they say yes when they really want to say no and vice versa, or they keep people at such a distance that they struggle to form close relationships. Healthy boundaries are essential not only to having healthy relationships, but also to our happiness.

First step to honoring your boundaries is to identify what kind of boundaries you tend to have. In order to grow, it is important to be honest with yourself.

Types of Boundaries

Porous Boundaries: Difficulty saying no to others, oversharing personal information, overly dependent on the opinion and validation of others, over-involvement in others’ problems, accepting of abuse and disrespect, fearing rejection when you act against another’s wishes. 

Rigid Boundaries: Avoids intimacy and close relationships, feels uncomfortable with closeness and asking for help, holds few close relationships, very protective of personal information, often detached from others, keeps others at a distance to avoid possible rejection.

Healthy Boundaries: Recognizes their limits and values and does not compromise on them, values own opinions, can communicate needs and limits to others, accepting of others and their expressed boundaries.

Defenses vs. Boundaries

  • A boundary lets positive things through and keeps harmful things out. A defense indiscriminately keeps things out.

  • Setting a boundary is a conscious and healthy way to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Being defensive can lead us into unhealthy and unproductive behavior.

  • Boundaries derive from love and self-worth. Defenses derive from fear and the belief that you are worthless.

Boundary Errors vs. Boundary Violations

  • A boundary error occurs when a person crosses a boundary accidentally or out of ignorance.

  • A boundary violation is when a person disregards us when we tell them that a boundary exists.

These are some websites which provide more information about healthy boundary setting and maintenance:

Serenity Online Therapy

10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries

5 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with Difficult People

setting healthy boundaries


Exercises for Non-judgmental Thinking (by Christy Matta)

“Cultivating non-judgmental thinking is taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Skills Groups as a part of the Mindfulness Training.  Mindfulness teaches individuals to observe and describe their own behavior, which is necessary when any new behavior is being learned, when there is some sort of problem, or a need for change.

In DBT mindfulness skills are intended to improve an individual’s abilities to observe and describe themselves and their environment non-judgmentally, which enhances the ability to participate in life effectively.

  • A NONJUDGMENTAL STANCE: Judging something as neither good nor bad. Everything simply is as it is. Focusing on just the facts.

Judging is often a short hand way of stating a preference. In my recent post “Why Not Judge” I discuss judgmental thinking in greater detail and mention that “Judgments are spontaneous and often inaccurate interpretations of our environment that influence our thinking and behavior.”

For example, if we judge a piece of clothing as pretty or beautiful we are stating a preference for that thing.  If we say it is ugly, then that is short hand for “I don’t prefer that.”  The problem is that we sometimes forget that our judgments are not facts, but are only our own preferences and opinions based on our own experiences.

Forming judgments is a spontaneous process and there are times when we need to make judgments.  However, in order to reduce emotional reactivity, it’s important to become aware of your own judgmental thinking and to develop the ability to think non-judgmentally.

Exercises in Cultivating a Non-judgmental stance

Focus on Language

Because it is so difficult to maintain a non-judgmental stance during times of stress and crisis, you may want to identify certain common judgmental words and phrases that trigger you to stop and observe your thinking.  Frequently used judgmental words include: “right,” “wrong,” “fair,” “unfair,” “should,” “shouldn’t,” “stupid,” “lazy,” “wonderful,” “perfect,” “bad,” and “terrible.”

Identify your common self judgments. (I’m bad, stupid, lazy, weak, not worth it etc.).

Turn that self judgment into a nonjudgmental descriptive statement.

When X happens (describe the situation).

I feel X (use a feeling word) e.g. “when someone yells at me, I feel helpless and afraid.” Or “when I make a mistake, I feel anxious and ineffective.”

Focus on Breathing

Bringing your focus to your breathing helps you calm, relax and slow down your thinking.  It enables us to get in touch with the present moment and let go of all the thoughts and judgments about the past and future.

Notice Your Thoughts

Bring your attention to your thoughts and judgments when you are doing simple activities, like eating.  Notice the thoughts you have about the food, as you eat it.  Don’t try to counter your judgments, just notice that they are there.

Judgments tend to activate extreme emotions.  If you want to live a less judgmental life, you must first become aware of your own automatic thoughts and judgments.  Learning to think non-judgmentally takes practice.  You have to be aware of when judgmental thinking occurs and practice bringing your attention to just the facts.”

practicing a non-judgmental stance


Pros and cons lists can be a helpful way to process ambivalent thoughts and assist in considering and/or making decisions. Should I pursue more formal treatment? Should I engage in this behaviour? Do I want to hold on to my eating disorder or do I want change?

There are often conflicting emotions around these kinds of decisions even if they feel like they "should" be straightforward. Ambivalence is a normal (and well-documented) aspect of eating disorders. We have to remember that our eating disorders give us something, they serve a purpose in our lives.

Writing a pros and cons list around decisions can help you put your thoughts onto paper and create a visual to refer back to. It's helpful to avoid looking at things in black-and-white terms such as "good" or "bad." It's more important to simply step back and look at consequences and whether these outcomes match up with your personal values and hopes for the future.

One really helpful example of  different way to look at pros and cons is the format used in DBT shown here and here.

pros & cons Lists


The body positive movement has been growing in recent years. This is encouraging, but for some of us it can feel so impossibly far away. We live in a culture that teaches us from an early age to pick apart our flaws, to hate our bodies, and to change them to suit what society deems as "ideal."

If you can reach a place of loving your body, that is wonderful, but sometimes it's a long process and the place to start is simply learning to tolerate your body and potentially moving on from there. If you only learn tolerance, that's okay too. It's just about putting down our weapons down and refusing to fight with our bodies any longer, this doesn't mean we have to love or even like the skin we're in.

Sometimes focusing on what our bodies allow us to do can be helpful. If you love gardening you practice appreciating the feel of the sun on your skin and your hands working in the soil, the strength in your arms to pull and to plant. Your body allows you those experiences.

learning how to tolerate, accept, &/or love your body

Unknown artist

Unknown artist


Opposite action is another helpful DBT strategy. It involves recognizing an urge and going against it. This skill is relevant to eating disorders, impulsive behaviours, anxiety, and depression.

The following is taken from an article on Psychology Today written by Jennifer Rollin:

"The first step is to identify and name the emotion that you are experiencing. The next part is to determine whether the emotion (including it’s intensity and duration) “fits the facts of the situation.” Additionally, a person can ask themselves whether acting on the urge will be effective in the long-term. Then, based on these answers, a person decides whether to act on their urge or to do an action that is opposite to the urge.

An Example of Opposite Action

Emotions are important in that they provide us with information and signals about things to pay attention to in our lives. There are times when an emotion “fits the facts of a situation” and motivates us towards effective action. For instance, feeling anxiety about an important exam could serve as a motivator to study. Or feeling anxious while walking home alone at night could help someone to maintain a better awareness of their surroundings.

However, there are times when an emotion “does not fit the facts of the situation” and when acting on an emotional urge is not effective. For instance, feeling intense anxiety about eating dinner at a restaurant does not “fit the facts of the situation,” and could cause someone to feel the urge to avoid socializing and going out to eat. Over time, this avoidance behavior only serves to make the anxiety worse. Additionally, it could start to negatively impact an individual’s relationships. In this instance, it would be helpful to note that you are experiencing the urge to avoid eating out and to the take an “opposite action,” which is more in alignment with your life values. For instance, pushing yourself to have meals out at a restaurant (despite feeling afraid), would be taking an opposite action."

It's a skill that takes practice as it involves distancing oneself from sometimes very intense emotions in the moment.

opposite action


Triggers are everywhere in the world around us. Some are avoidable and some are not. Some are specific to your individual experience and some are broader.

There are certain steps you can take to avoid some triggers which can be a helpful way to support your own recovery and well-being. You can do your best to avoid situations where you might be triggered (e.g. large crowds and close proximity to others). You can avoid looking at harmful online images and content in certain "pro" communities. You can steer yourself (to some degree) away from harmful media content (e.g. shows that depict sexual violence - there's actually a great website called Unconsenting Media that works with a list of media that has suggestions of or actual depictions of sexual violence).

Love Our Bodies Love Ourselves has featured a few articles on taking care around social media and managing triggers

The other side of trigger management is that the world is full of them and sometimes challenging yourself to work through those triggers can be an important part of your recovery (especially in regards to weight and body shape and imagery). Determining whether that's where you're at is an individual process.

We work hard in our group to provide a safe space for individuals, but sometimes triggers do come up in conversation and at that point we have a couple options on how to proceed. We encourage people to say "red flag" if something comes up in conversation is triggering. The person is not required to go into detail about why something might have been triggering, but there is always the option to explore language and perception and the deeply ingrained thoughts that underlie feeling triggered (usually this is in the context of weight and shape versus a history of abuse or trauma.)

trigger management


Relapse happens; it's a normal part of recovery. That said, there are steps we can take to avoid relapses and to get back up from them when they do occur.

The following is an excerpt from Kelty Mental Health:

"It takes a lot of courage, hard work, strength and support to recover from an eating disorder. Most people can’t reach this point without a few slips and minor setbacks. Relapse is when a person who is in recovery goes back to disordered eating behaviours or negative thoughts about food, weight and body size. The way to prevent a relapse is to recognize and deal with some of the things that could get in the way of recovery. There are several things a person can do to prevent relapsing.

“So the more I learned what my triggers were, what I was good at and where my vulnerabilities lied – the easier it was for me to adapt. Likewise, the more I knew what strengthened me and the support and resources I possessed, the easier it was to adapt.” ~ Amy

Strategies for preventing a relapse:

1. Develop a support system – and use it!
It is very important to surround yourself with people who love, support and encourage you. These people can be members of your family, your friends, or your care providers. They will be there to help you when you are struggling with a difficult situation or experience. It’s not always easy to reach out, but you should feel comfortable asking for help when you need it. Some people find it useful to make a list of names and phone numbers to call if they start to slip back into old thought patterns or unhealthy eating behaviours.

2. Reduce negative influences
Try to identify the negative influences in your life, and find ways to reduce or avoid these unhelpful situations. These negative influences might include people who make unhelpful comments about their own weight and appearance, or trigger you to make unhelpful comparisons about your weight or shape. Your own thoughts can also be unhelpful! Learn to challenge any destructive thoughts you have about yourself. Make a list of all of your good qualities and use it when you feel critical or negative.

3. Identify your “triggers”
A “trigger” is anything that can cause you to return to disordered eating behaviours or thoughts. Each person has their own triggers. They often include feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or lonely. Sometimes an upsetting or traumatic experience can be a trigger. Some people are more likely to relapse at certain times of the year, for example during holidays or exams. To identify your triggers, think of times when you were tempted to act on eating disorder urges. Try to figure out what contributed to these urges.

4. Make a personal coping plan
Make a list of different triggers that could cause you to act on eating disorder urges. Then, come up with a plan for dealing with each of these triggers in a healthier way. Your coping plan might include calling a friend, taking a walk, or writing in a journal.

5. Eat snacks and meals regularly
A meal and snack schedule can prevent you from going back to disordered eating or unhelpful eating behaviours. Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time, and stick to your plan! Eat three meals a day, plus snacks, at regular times (about every 3 hours). A consistent schedule will be good for both your emotional and physical health. Your family may be able to help by eating meals together with you as often as possible.

6. Keep busy and stay involved
Get involved in a hobby or activity that you enjoy. It can be anything from arts & crafts, to volunteering, to nature walks, to joining a club. If you make time to do the things you enjoy, or to do nice things for others, your focus will shift away from your eating disorder. It can also help to keep you motivated to recover and to stay connected to your surroundings and the people in your community.

7. Make time for yourself
It is important to take time to do something good for yourself every day. Some people find it helpful to use this time to relax or reflect. Some do yoga or meditation. Others draw, paint, write, or listen to music. No matter what you choose, remind yourself that you are important. You deserve to take this time to do something that is just for you!


Signs of Relapse
It is important to remember that recovery is possible, even for those who have struggled with eating disorder symptoms for a long time. If we know some of the signs of relapse, we may recognize when someone is returning to eating disorder patterns. Then, there is a chance to prevent a slip from turning into a relapse.

Examples of warning signs include:

  • checking weight daily

  • skipping meals

  • over exercising

  • needing to be perfect

  • increased need for control

  • difficulty coping with stress

  • feeling sad or hopeless

  • wearing loose-fitting clothing

  • worrying about weight

  • avoiding situations that involve food

  • looking in the mirror a lot

  • spending a lot of time alone

If you notice some of these signs in yourself or a loved one, and are worried that a relapse may happen, it is important to get help right away. The support of a mental health professional can be very important in preventing relapse. This is especially true during the early stages of recovery, which can be both frightening and overwhelming."

relapse avoidance