Overcoming Anxiety In Eating Disorder Recovery

We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present. – Thomas Edison

Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort. – Peter McWilliams

We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are. – Max DePree

Every one of us has a comfort zone–a place where we feel safe and our surroundings feel familiar. Within our comfort zones, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors may feel habitual and undemanding. Particularly when we experience a chaotic stretch of time, the idea of exposing ourselves to further discomfort sounds repugnant and even self-destructive, especially if we already struggle with mental and/or emotional obstacles.

As an anorexia survivor, I like to compare the act of staying within our comfort zones to the act of hiding under the covers of our beds. As a child (or adult… no judgment here!), did you ever bury yourself beneath your covers, hiding from the boogeyman that lurked within the darkness of your bedroom?

I apologize for playing the role of a skeptic but I bet that if you had crawled out from under the covers, you would have discovered that the boogeyman was . . . nonexistent.

I promise that there is no boogeyman hiding under your bed.

If you had only slipped off your covers and gradually exposed yourself to the darkness, you’d have realized just how safe you were. Of course, facing the mysterious boogeyman for the first time, your palms would have sweated and your heart would have pummeled against your chest, but your fear would have dissipated after confronting the darkness a few (or several) times.

From personal experience, I can tell you that eating disorder recovery needs to be approached in a similar fashion. Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, wrote a fantastic article about the importance of taking risks in eating disorder recovery. It intensely resonated with me because for years, I’ve stressed to my peers that recovery is impossible without stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

From Rollin’s Huffington Post article:

“The recovery process is all about stepping outside of your comfort zone, facing fears, and defying the voice of the eating disorder – time and time again.”

“The desire to stick to “what feels safe” is completely normal. Even for individuals who have not been affected by eating disorders, there is an impulse to stay with what is comfortable and familiar.”

“To truly grow and strengthen your recovery, it is critical to continue to challenge yourself on a regular basis, whether it’s trying new restaurants, facing “fear or trigger foods,” being more flexible with exercise, or resisting the urge to engage in eating disorder behaviors.”

“Often people avoid taking risks because they think that they need to wait until they feel confident enough to do so.  However, the paradox of this is that you will only begin to feel less afraid and gain confidence by gradually exposing yourself to what you are afraid of.”

I was eating a burger at Red Robin when I read her article and I nearly dropped the bite I was chewing when I screamed, “YAAAS, Jennifer Rollin! YAAS!”

Back when I wrote on my previous blog (Like Some Cat From Japan, which no longer exists), I had several young men and women reach out to me for recovery advice. My advice most often involved (A) stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and (B) doing the exact opposite of what the eating disorder voice declares. The following two examples demonstrate very straightforward (but challenging) ways that you can confront a couple of common eating disorder-related fears:

Example 1:  If you’re at a restaurant and ordering a veggie burger with salad feels “safe,” actively challenge yourself to order something “scary!” Do your palms start to sweat when you think about eating a bowl of chicken alfredo? Does your stomach twist into a knot when you think about ordering the Italian sausage calzone? Order one of those.

Example 2: Does the idea of skipping a workout make you feel guilty and anxious? Skip that workout!

^ ^ ^ These challenges will probably make you feel extremely anxious. ^ ^ ^

As an unofficial mentor, I advised my online pals to recognize their anxiety as a blessing, or a rational signal from their bodies and minds. Our anxiety can be used as a powerful weapon against our eating disorders if we approach it with a mindful stance. Mindfulness requires that we take a balanced approach to emotions so that we neither suppress or exaggerate them. If we observe our anxiety with a nonjudgmental stance of openness and clarity, we can prevent being swept away by our feelings and allowing them to control our decisions. The key is noticing our anxiety, and observing it with curiosity and self-care. The following two examples demonstrate mindful thought processes, which target the previously mentioned eating disorder-related fears:

Example 1: Wow, I am feeling really anxious about ordering the Italian sausage calzone tonight. Why is this calzone threatening to me? Maybe this is my eating disorder trying to take charge. I’ve learned that if I want to recover from my eating disorder, it can help to face my fears. My eating disorder is a huge mental and physical health risk, so maybe ordering the calzone would be an act of kindness toward myself. 

Example 2How interesting . . . I notice that the idea of skipping this workout is freaking me out. This isn’t the kind of relationship I want to have with exercise. Instead of letting this anxiety propel me into the gym and negatively impact my relationship with exercise, maybe I should stay home and drink some tea with a good book. 

By observing our anxiety with compassion and understanding, we can put our own situation into a larger perspective and use our anxiety as a guidepost for decision-making. Mindfulness about our thoughts and feelings enables us to pause and remember that eating disorder recovery is our goal, thus empowering us to make the best decisions for our mental health. At times, whatever feels the most stressful is actually the best course of action for your healing. 

With great empathy and heartache, I have witnessed my peers take a passive approach to recovery and rarely challenge themselves. As a result, they remain stuck in the trenches of their eating disorders.

I know how hard it is to take advice from others so if you won’t listen to me, please listen to Rollin, who is an eating disorder therapist and the author of the article I mentioned earlier. Eating disorder recovery is supposed to be anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable. If you’re not feeling anxious, this likely means that your eating disorder is winning the battle against you.

If you remain hidden under the covers and detained in your comfort zone, you will experience little to no growth. Just like a child needs to face the boogeyman, people with eating disorders need to face their fear foods and resist the compulsive urges to exercise. Time and time again, we must rebel against the eating disorder’s voice because over time, doing so will not feel as threatening.

Do your mental and physical health a favor, and don’t fall into the trap of waiting for your fears to subside prior to taking chances. When it comes to an eating disorder, you are not going to “grow out of” your food, exercise and weight anxieties. Your fear of particular situations will not melt away until you confront those situations.

As Rollin says, “rather than trying to get rid of your fear, keep in mind that it is normal and okay to feel afraid . . . you can feel afraid and take the desired action anyway. The less that you give into the voice of fear and allow it to control your actions, the more empowered and free you will feel over time.” Read her post here.


2 thoughts on “Overcoming Anxiety In Eating Disorder Recovery

  1. Interesting point of view on anorexia recovery. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is extremely difficult and I feel like when I do, I don’t feel good about it which makes sense to me now. I’ve had my ED for almost half of my life now and it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for me. Hang in there xx


    1. It’s true. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is supposed to feel terrifying! That’s how recovery happens though. Read this post for more information about why eating disorder recovery feel so awful sometimes: http://wp.me/p8mYwb-hU

      Keep challenging yourself and I promise that your eating disorder will grow weaker. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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