She’s out for lunch with a friend. She finds herself quickly scanning the menu. “Maybe I’ll have the chicken sandwich,” she thinks to herself, “but instead of fries, I’ll have a side salad.”
“But what kind of bread is on the sandwich? That might be too much bread.” “Maybe I’ll get the sandwich and just eat half,” she tells herself.
“Or I could go with the salad with chicken. But I wonder what they cook the chicken in? I could order the garden salad instead…but what kind of dressing is on the salad?”
Anorexia can feel incredibly exhausting. It’s like having a voice in your head, which tells you that “you are in control.” However, it actually is the one controlling you.
As an eating disorder therapist, the following are a few quick tips for what to do when you have urges to restrict in anorexia recovery.
1. Start to notice the eating disorder thoughts.
When I work with clients, often we will start to differentiate between their “eating disorder self” and their “healthy self.”
The first step is starting to recognize the unhelpful thoughts that you’re eating disorder self may be telling you. Then you can practice telling yourself more helpful coping statements, and taking actions that align with your “healthy self” values-no matter what your mind is telling you.
One helpful thing can be to think about what you’d tell a friend or a younger child if they said to you if they said something like, “I can’t eat this pizza because it will make me gain weight.”
Eating Disorder Self: “You can’t eat that. It will make you gain weight and it’s so bad for you.”
Healthy Self: “No food is good or bad and I deserve to nourish myself with food that I enjoy. What’s truly unhealthy is feeling anxiety and guilt around food.”
2. Remind yourself the outcome of restricting.
It’s important to remember that every time you restrict food, it gets harder to resist the urges in the future. While eating foods that scare you can feel incredibly hard at first, the more you practice challenging yourself-the easier and more natural it will feel over time.
The more that you restrict, the more that you strengthen “the eating disorder self.” The more that you push yourself, the stronger your “healthy self” will get.
3. Remember that all foods can fit into a healthy diet.
No food is “good” or “bad.” All foods can fit into a healthy diet. You can make yourself sick from eating too much kale, in the same way that you can feel sick from eating an overload of donuts.
What’s truly unhealthy is experiencing anxiety and guilt around food, as this can spike your cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
It’s also important to put things into perspective. One meal or snack (or even a week of meals/snacks) will not have a significant impact on your weight or health.
4. Reach out for support.
If you are struggling with urges to restrict food, it’s so important to reach out to supportive friends, family, or members of your treatment team. Even if they aren’t able to respond right away, the act of reaching out can bring your “healthy self” to the forefront.
If you aren’t meeting with a therapist, it’s so important to find one who specializes in treating people with eating disorders.
You never should have to struggle with an eating disorder alone, and sometimes it’s helpful to find people that you can trust more than “the eating disorder voice.”
Recovery Is Possible
She is telling me about how much fun she had over the holidays, eating pastries and baking cookies with her family. She didn’t engage in any kind of “exercise” for the week that she was out of town, and she isn’t concerned about it. Instead, she tells me stories about all of the fun outings that she did with family.
When she first came to meet with me for therapy, she felt that she couldn’t go a day without compulsively exercising and was struggling to eat enough to meet her energy needs.
To see her now, you’d have no idea that this was someone who used to be terrified of certain foods.
Anorexia is an exhausting, painful, and difficult illness.
However, full recovery is completely possible and so worth it.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Germantown, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: www.jenniferrollin.com