If you’ve overcome an eating disorder, congratulations! Any type of eating disorder or disordered eating habits can be very difficult to let go of. And even if you’ve been in recovery for years, you might still notice that disordered thoughts about food or your body tend to creep up every once in a while. For many people in recovery, these thoughts often come about during periods of high stress and/or major transitions; I personally had a relapse in my anorexia nervosa and orthorexia as a freshman in college. Years later, after acquiring more nutrition education and life experiences, I realize that many recovery warriors suffer from relapses when they feel overwhelmed and are lacking control over certain situations in their lives. If this sounds like your own experience, know you are not alone. By recognizing why stress can cause a resurgence of old habits and by learning how to overcome this pattern, we can prevent harmful relapses and continue living our best lives in recovery.
Many individuals (myself included) who have been diagnosed with a restrictive eating disorder have a “type A” personality – they are rigidly organized, perfectionistic, anxious, competitive, and high-achieving. They want to be the best at everything they do, and love being in control. Eating disorder behaviors like restriction and compulsive exercising are particularly comforting for people with these characteristics, because these behaviors involve controlling one’s food choices and body size. When other areas of life feel chaotic and out of control – family systems, friendships, romantic relationships, work, school, and now the global pandemic – anxiety levels rise and panic sets in. In these situations, people with a history of disordered eating may revert back to destructive behaviors in an attempt to feel safe, secure, and back in control. And the risk of returning to these behaviors is higher if alternative, healthier coping mechanisms have never been learned.
From my own experiences, I know the transition from high school to college can lead to a relapse in a recovered individual. High school is comfortable; we have our set groups of friends, we know our teachers and classmates, and we’re familiar with our environments. But college is new and intimidating. We’re separated from our families and closest friends and are forced to build our own new communities. We don’t know anyone, we aren’t familiar with our physical surroundings, and even the classes and professors are completely different from what we’re used to. This can be a major cause of stress for anyone, and for someone in recovery, it promotes the desire to engage in old behaviors to feel in control again.
So how can relapses during stressful times and life transitions be avoided? For predictable stressors like starting a new school, familiarizing yourself with certain aspects of your new environment can help you to feel less overwhelmed. This might mean touring your campus again prior to move-in day: figure out the location of your dorm building, nearby dining options, lecture halls, and other important spots. In addition, you can try to connect with new peers ahead of time. Most college campuses have Facebook groups dedicated specifically to incoming freshmen, allowing them to chat and make friends with each other before school starts. Navigating a huge college campus feels a lot less intimidating if you’re alongside new friends who are going through a similar transition. Colleges also have a variety of clubs, student groups, and sports teams, so finding one that fits your interests is a great way to feel comfortable in a new environment and meet people with similar passions.
Similarly, in preparation for a new job, try to figure out logistical details in advance (such as how long your commute will take, where you will park, how employees dress at work, if you have access to a fridge and microwave, etc.). Knowing these basics ahead of time can help you to feel more comfortable and confident going into your first week. Additionally, practicing stress management techniques, prioritizing self-care, and seeking extra support from loved ones or your treatment team members can help you to feel more grounded during times of change. Make sure there’s someone in your life you can reach out to when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable to a relapse and need help with maintaining your recovery. And don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help when you need it! Recovery is not easy, but if we learn to better manage stressful times by using healthier coping mechanisms and seeking external support, we can continue to enjoy happy, healthy, eating disorder-free lives.
Written by Simon Gmuca, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy.