Overcoming an eating disorder is not an easy journey. It’s a difficult process with many ups and downs, but it is worth the time and effort.
Taking steps toward recovery can improve your quality of life and can even be lifesaving. With treatment and continued support, eating disorder recovery is possible.
How Do You Know If You Need Help?
If you are constantly preoccupied with thoughts about food, dieting, and your body weight and shape, and have engaged in extreme behavior to lose weight or prevent weight gain, you may be at risk of or have an eating disorder.
If you’re not sure whether or not you have an eating disorder, taking an online screener, such as EAT-26, can help you determine if you should seek professional help.
Types of Eating Disorders
Five primary types of eating disorders can be diagnosed by a mental health professional:
- Anorexia nervosa: Typically characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight, and an intense fear of weight gain
- Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by the cycle of binging and compensatory behaviors, such as vomiting, use of laxatives, or extreme exercise to compensate for the food eaten during the binge
- Binge eating disorder: Characterized by repeatedly eating large quantities of food quickly to the point of discomfort while feeling a loss of control, followed by guilt and shame
- Other specified feeding and eating disorder: Characterized by eating disorder symptoms, but does not meet strict criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa diagnosis
- Unspecified feeding or eating disorder: Characterized by symptoms of a feeding and eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment in life, but does not meet the full criteria for any eating disorder diagnosis
Eating disorders negatively impact your physical, mental, and emotional health. These devastating diseases can impact all of your organ systems, including your cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and neurological systems.
Mentally and emotionally, you may be completely preoccupied with thoughts about food and your body, which can impact your ability to function regularly, such as doing your job, going to school, or socializing.
Anxiety, mood swings, and depression are also common with eating disorders, which may impact your emotional health, relationships, and ability to cope.
People Involved in Your Recovery
It’s important to have a team of eating disorder specialists to aid you in your recovery. At a minimum, your team should consist of a physician, mental health counselor, and registered dietitian nutritionist.
For treatment of eating disorders in children and adolescents, family members and loved ones are essential to the recovery process.
In fact, having a strong support system is critical for recovery at any age. Friends and family can provide love and encouragement throughout your recovery.
If you do not have friends or family whom you feel comfortable reaching out to, you may find it helpful to connect with online or in-person support groups and recovery mentors.
Phases of Recovery
During eating disorder recovery, you will go through the Stages of Change. It is common to go through multiple cycles of each phase throughout recovery or be in various stages at the same time for the symptoms of the eating disorder.
The Stages of Change include:
Pre-contemplation: Close family and friends may notice the symptoms and behaviors of an eating disorder, but you may still think that you do not have a problem or need help.
Contemplation: You are willing to admit that you have an eating disorder and need help, however you are fearful of changes.
Preparation: You are ready to make a change, but you’re not sure how or what to do.
Action: You begin to make changes following the recommendations of your care team.
Maintenance: You have sustained changes for six months or more. You are working with your team to create strategies to maintain changes and prevent relapse.
Considerations to Keep in Mind
Recovery from an eating disorder is time consuming and difficult. You’ll need to put in all your effort and recruit a strong support system to help you get through the process. Here are some considerations as you begin your journey to recovery.
As you are preparing for recovery, you may be filled with negative thoughts and feelings, including doubt, shame, blame, and fear.8 These are normal. The important thing is that you are ready and open to receiving help, the first step toward recovery.
The process for recovery will be long and difficult, so it is important to manage your own expectations. At some point or multiple points during recovery, you may feel that you are not making any progress. It’s important to remember that recovery from an eating disorder is a non-linear process, and you may be cycling through the stages of recovery.
To recover, you’ll need strength, patience, and commitment. As you begin implementing changes suggested by your care team, you may still have a lot of fears and resistance or be faced with triggering situations. That’s because you’ll be breaking old habits and learning new coping skills, which may feel a lot like letting go of a life jacket.
Continue to focus on your goals, communicate, and trust your care team to ensure the best possible environment to support your recovery. When things are difficult, continue your efforts and lean on your support system during those hard times. Connecting with others, including your family, friends, and therapists, will be a critical strategy during your recovery.
Both during and after your recovery, self-care is an important tool. This includes journaling, yoga, meditation, relaxation, pet therapy, food diaries, and spirituality. These strategies can help you come to terms with your appearance.
Other strategies may include eating regularly, maintaining a steady weight, moderate physical activity, and limiting alcohol consumption.
One of the most important aspects of staying in recovery is establishing and embracing who you are when you are no longer defined by your eating disorder.
When it comes to eating disorders, relapses are common, especially in the event of stress, such as stressful life events, work, and social situations. While it may be impossible to avoid stress entirely, a relapse is not an indicator that recovery is impossible.
Maintaining and increasing your motivation to recover, and working with your treatment team to create coping strategies, can help you move forward in your recovery process.
A Word From Experts
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, the journey to recovery is not an easy one, but it is worth the effort. Eating disorders are mental health diseases that have serious physical, mental, and emotional consequences, and they can be fatal without treatment.
Finding a strong support system, maintaining hope, and increasing motivation will help you during this difficult time. As there is no specific timeline for recovery, it is critical to be patient with yourself or your loved one.