Tips for Self-Management of Eating Disorder Symptoms
By Tannis Hugill MA, RCC, RDT, BC-DMT
As a therapist who works with people healing from disordered eating, an important part of my work with clients is to help them discover strategies to manage what seems like an unmanageable flood. Urges to binge, compulsions to purge and fears of getting uncontrollably fat can feel overwhelming. People suffering from disordered eating often feel out of control, as if their symptoms have taken over their minds, their bodies, their spirits. Part of the difficulty is that sometimes the symptoms are felt to be an enemy, and sometimes a friend. There can be a lot of ambivalence towards giving in, or not, which contributes to the felt sense of struggle.
I teach that it is important to view eating disorder behaviors, whatever they may be, as “behaviors,” actions that have become habitual reactions to deal with the painful feelings and experiences of life. They are patterns that have become coping tools, serving a protective function. They are also actions that create a cycle of destruction and pain on their own. Those that seek treatment discover this dynamic and wish to find a way into true health, peace and loving self-care. I believe that, in some way, eating disorder symptoms can be seen as a form of self-care, an effort to find balance, developed when the individual just didn’t know any better.
Viewing symptoms in this way can diminish the shame and guilt bound up with the patterns. Instead, they can be recognized as signals, alerting us to a need that is not being met. Unmet needs cause difficult feelings. When these are blotted out by symptoms, the needs and feelings remain unconscious. One feels continually unsatisfied, empty, hungry – without knowing why.
Because I am a dance and drama therapist, I guide individuals to use the strengths of their creativity and body awareness in order to gain a friendly relationship to their embodied selves. Our bodies are our homes, where all of our memories and emotions live. They can be creative resources, through which we access our strengths. Through our bodies we can experience our world with pleasure, as well as with pain.
I encourage clients to practice taking a few deep breaths, and scan their bodies for information, noticing areas of comfort and discomfort. Then, they can ask themselves what feelings, images, thoughts, memories, and associations are connected with these. When there is a thought or impulse to enact a symptom, they can take a moment to slow the reaction down to discover what is going on underneath and get some clues as to what they need. Even if, after a while they decide to use their symptom, they will have interrupted the cycle. This is a victory in itself, showing them that they can make other choices.
They may discover that their symptom masks a need to be soothed, to feel safe. I encourage clients to create lists of activities that are pleasureful, calming, and easy to do. For some it may be journalling or talking to a friend. For others it might be going for a walk, cleaning the closet, renting a video, petting the cat, taking a bath or shower.
Meditative activities that slow the body and the mind, such as a daily sitting or walking meditation may be helpful to lower chronic high anxiety which makes all other emotions harder to tolerate.
I often suggest that clients maintain a daily journal of symptom triggers listing the time, place, activity, people and feelings connected with the triggers on one side, and the helpful activity used on the other. This can be a useful aid to learn what works and what doesn’t, and helps gain assurance that they, and not their symptoms, are managing their lives.
Recovering from disordered eating is a process of learning that takes time. There are many rewards: gaining a self-knowledge based in a connection to one’s deep strengths, and trust that eating disorder symptoms are not necessary for survival. No longer impaired by the wounds underlying the complex of eating disorders, life becomes an unfolding story in which love and acceptance of self and can be shared with freedom.
Tannis is a BC Clinical Counsellor and registered Dance and Drama therapist, who has a private practice in Vancouver.