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How I Deal With Triggers After Recovering From an Eating Disorder

September 2, 2023

Two months ago, I ran into an acquaintance’s mom, who I hadn’t seen in about a year. “Wow, you look so great, so much thinner!” she said. To the right person, under the right circumstances, maybe this would be taken as a compliment. To me—someone who spent years working to overcome an eating disorder and finally found themselves at a healthy weight—this sent me into a tailspin of distorted thoughts. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered on the other side of recovery, it’s this: this world is teeming with eating disorder triggers. It’s up to me to figure out how to deal with them.

When I began the long, arduous process of recovery years ago, I surrounded myself with body-positive people. I got rid of the scale in my house. I learned mindfulness techniques to help me manage the discomfort that came with grocery shopping or eating out at a restaurant. What I didn’t realize, though, is that no matter how carefully I curated my post-ED life, I’d still be exposed to all kinds of triggers—like calorie counts on menus, overheard convos about intermittent fasting, and “thinspo” Instagram posts. After all, I live in a world obsessed with the size of our bodies—consumed with how much or how little space we take up, and what it means about us. In the U.S. specifically, the weight loss industry is a 3.7 billion machine. Needless to say, as I sought to break free from my disordered thinking and develop a healthy mindset around eating, I faced many obstacles along the way.

Learning to cope with those eating disorder triggers has been paramount to staying in recovery. Here are some helpful strategies I’ve used.

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I asked my doctor not to read my weight aloud.

It’s common practice to step on the scale every time you see your primary care doctor. But I never wanted to know the number, because I knew it might trigger feelings of shame and anxiety. Worse yet, my disordered thoughts in response to knowing the number might just drive me to revert back to disordered eating behaviors—and the last thing I wanted to do was backslide after all the hard work I’d done in recovery.

Now, when I step on the scale, I turn around so that I’m not facing the number reading, and politely ask the nurse not to read my weight aloud. At first, it felt awkward. I wondered if they thought I was weird for making this request. But with time, it’s started to feel easier—even empowering—to take charge of my experience and advocate for myself.

I stopped following certain bloggers and influencers.

Social media is rife with eating disorder triggers. For me, the posts that tended to bring up uncomfortable thoughts and emotions revolved around food intake. Those ever-popular “what I eat in a day” posts—especially the ones that included specific measurements of how much was consumed—usually caused me to spiral into unhealthy comparisons. Every time I see those posts, I unfollow, mute, or block the account that posted them.

I also unfollow any influencers who use their platforms to demonize specific foods or promote any kind of restriction—even sharing low-carb recipes or posting about how to make a “lighter” version of a certain dish.

It’s taken me so long to develop a balanced mindset around eating, where no food is “bad” or off limits, and I intend to preserve that perspective by any means necessary.

I asked loved ones to refrain from discussing certain topics or using certain words.

While I’m certain my friends and family members never intended to hurt me, they occasionally made comments during my eating disorder recovery that were less than helpful. It took a little while for me to build up the courage to let them know how these comments affected me, but now I’m so glad I did.

For instance, my mom often liked to share her extreme efforts to lose weight with me—many of which I considered unhealthy. I finally reminded her that I recovered from an eating disorder, and told her that this kind of information is deeply triggering to me. Although she made an effort to avoid this topic, she did occasionally still slip up. Finally, I set a boundary: If you talk about weight loss with me, I’ll have to end the conversation.

My husband, who I met years after my recovery, didn’t know the extent of my eating disorder when we first started dating. Occasionally, he’d use the word “fat” jokingly in reference to himself, or try to talk to me about the changes he made in his diet and workout routine in an attempt to build muscle. I endured these remarks and conversations for a while out of fear that if I told him they bothered me, I’d appear “weak” or overly sensitive. When I ultimately explained why they make me uncomfortable, though, he was able to validate and show compassion for my experiences. Nowadays, he not only catches himself before making potentially triggering comments, but even notices when other people around us make them, too.

On my bachelorette travels to Savannah this spring, my maid of honor informed all of my bridesmaids attending that there was only one rule for the trip: No negative talk about our bodies.

I use mindfulness and distraction to deal with triggers I can’t avoid.

The unfortunate reality is, we can’t control what every stranger talks about in our presence, the content of every advertisement we’re shown on social media, or the words we read while casually flipping through a magazine or watching our favorite shows. We can’t even control what our loved ones will say to or around us. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness has enabled me to recognize when I’m face to face with a trigger, and take a step back to notice how it’s impacting me. I’m more aware of what thoughts are coming up, and what sensations are surfacing in my body—say, a racing heart, a tense and clenched jaw, or shallow breathing. The more aware I am of what’s happening, the less likely I am to allow that trigger to control my thoughts and feelings. I can treat it much like unwanted thoughts during a meditation session, allowing it to wash over me and then inevitably pass.

In cases when mindfulness isn’t enough, I also use healthy distractions to pull my focus away from the trigger. For instance, if a family member begins talking about the latest fad diet they’re on at the dinner table, I can initiate a side conversation with someone else about a different subject. I can leave the room and do a breathing exercise in the bathroom, or text a friend. If a stranger in the waiting room starts talking about what they ate for lunch, I can pull out a book or pop some earbuds in and listen to a podcast. It’s my way of showing my brain, “We don’t have to listen to that right now. That conversation is not for us.”

During a speech I gave at my local chapter of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), I informed all the people there who are currently in recovery that no matter how many boundaries they set and measures they took to protect themselves, they’d still occasionally have to face challenging triggers. The good news? While we may live in a triggering world, there are so many steps you can take to protect your mental health and well-being. And while few people may tell you this, that’s what recovery is all about: taking your power back.

If you or someone you love is battling an eating disorder, you’re not alone. Call the NEDA toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or click to chat with a NEDA Helpline volunteer. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer.

Read next: Practicing Intuitive Eating Is a Great New Year’s Resolution. Here’s Why.

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