Yesterday, we talked about preventing and managing eating disorder relapses. Setbacks are common, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fully recover.

Like the eating disorder experts emphasized yesterday, the critical part is to learn from your relapses. (Speaking of which, Carrie, from one of my favorite blogs, ED Bites, has an excellent post today on learning from relapse.)

One of the things that can commonly trigger a setback is stress. And an eating disorder can seem like a savior when you’re struggling with a difficult situation or the anxiety of the everyday.

It fools you into thinking it’ll help you just this once.

As Leila writes in Aimee Liu’s must-read book Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives: Guidance and Reflections on Recovery From Eating Disorders*:

When I found myself in a personal crisis, ED presented itself as an ally, and I grasped at it like a life preserver…I felt safe and in control even as important relationships crumbled around me.

Eating disorders provide a false sense of security, a safety net, and like Leila writes, they feel like a friend. For most people, eating disorders become a way to cope with anxiety, to help them soothe their stress.

So one of the keys to overcoming a relapse and seeking recovery is to develop stress-management strategies that are healthy and truly help you cope. Leila says:

Through this relapse, I came to face the reality that ED is a default response to anxiety in my life and therefore I have to be ever-vigilant, consciously choosing other means for self-calming when varying levels of stress present themselves.

In the same chapter, psychotherapist and researcher Angela Favaro, Ph.D, outlines three guidelines for improving how you deal with stress.

  1. “Understand that stress is normal.” Here, it’s important to realize that you are indeed stressed, and that it’s perfectly OK. Stress actually has a helpful function. “Stress is simply a signal that can help you recognize your needs,” Favaro says. I really like thinking of stress this way. It makes it less overwhelming and brings us into problem-solving mode. We feel empowered, not helpless. It’s similar to how you’d use a relapse to figure out what’s wrong and brainstorm the best ways to proceed. For many of us, our automatic response, though, is to blame ourselves for feeling stressed-out. According to Favaro, “Criticizing yourself for feeling stressed or trying to suppress the feeling will only increase your anxiety and make it more difficult to handle the situation.”
  2. “Take stock of your current stress-management resources and abilities.” Dealing with stress isn’t some innate gift bestowed upon a lucky few. Everyone can deal with stress better once they have some good tools. Favaro suggests identifying “the resources and relationships in your life that currently help you manage stress (for example, people you know you can turn to for help or support, a beloved pet, a favorite hobby) as well as factors that limit your ability to manage stress (such as fatigue, lack of free time, unsupportive relationships).”
  3. “Identify the resources and abilities you still need to develop in order to succeed in managing stress.” What are other things that would help you better manage stressful situations? Favaro lists several strategies that are known for their stress-soothing abilities: meditation, hanging out with friends, practicing your hobbies, enjoying nature. She then suggests writing down, in steps, how you’ll add these tools to your day-to-day. As she reminds us: “Effective stress management is not a quick fix but a lifelong process.”

Favaro concludes by writing: “The best stress-management resource of all is a lifestyle that respects your own emotional, physical and spiritual needs.”

I also loved this part of Leila’s story, which provides valuable insight into honoring yourself in addition to managing stress:

It’s essential to recognize that I have needs and to express those needs to myself as well as to the important people in my life. It sends a message to my brain that I am worthy and valuable.

I visualize the thought patterns that lead me to ED as well-worn tracks in my brain. I just need to get my thoughts to jump off those tracks and onto a healthier line of thinking in order to avoid the train wreck of bingeing and purging.

I function so much better when I treat myself in the way I like to be treated by others: nonjudgmentally and with the utmost gentleness. Whenever I was feeling low in the past, I’d be self-critical. Now I’ve learned to become my own best friend and take steps to treat myself even more lovingly.

Leila also practices yoga; loves needlework, which she says creates an almost meditative state; writes to her best friend; and shares her feelings, which she describes as “a detoxification of pent-up negative emotions.”

What helps you in managing stress? What are your favorite ways to unwind?

* I received a free copy.