How To Handle Eating Disorder Triggers
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, it may feel as if virtually everything around you is a potential trigger. These triggers often seem to be inescapable and impossible to be ignored. Rather, they come unannounced and unbidden in the sights and sounds of daily life.
Triggers for an eating disorder come in a range of forms. Simply overhearing a conversation about weight loss, or seeing calorie counts listed on a restaurant menu can cause anxiety and even a relapse. When you or someone you know encounter a trigger, any situation can become overwhelming. However, you cannot control or expect people to cater to your condition as cases like this are often unavoidable. What you can do is -- take the time to do a social audit and cleanse your life of products, images, and even people that are contributing to pushing you over the edge and back into toxic patterns.
WHAT IS A TRIGGER?
Triggers are stimuli that incite an uncomfortable, upsetting and intense emotion for a person. A trigger may be environmental, situational, social, physiological or psychological, but whichever form it takes, it can trigger negative reactions.
Once the person has been triggered, they could move rapidly into a reactive state where they need to find relief, distraction or an escape from the uncomfortable emotion they’re experiencing. If someone you know or yourself has an eating disorder, this type of escape will almost certainly make you feel compulsive urges to act on your disordered feelings and thoughts.
Just like an eating disorder, the link between any specific trigger and your response to it will, by its nature, be irrational. Of course, logically you’re aware that skipping a meal or purging is a self-destructive, ineffective response to hearing an unwanted comment or experiencing some kind of pain or hurt, but it’s the behavior that you’ve become used to relying on as a coping mechanism. Purging, limiting food intake or overeating – these maladaptive coping strategies may be unhealthy and unhelpful, but they give you the temporary comfort you’re seeking at a challenging moment.
When you are in recovery from an eating disorder, you learn that the comfort you derive from your maladaptive behaviors is only fleeting and, in the end, destructive. There are many more healthy, sustainable and effective reactions to the triggers you experience.
Therefore, to break that trigger-to-maladaptive behavior response, you need to learn to identify the triggers that are specific to you. When you’re armed with that knowledge you can practice new ways of managing the urges that you experience as a result.
WHAT CAN BE AN EATING DISORDER TRIGGER?
Whatever stage of your recovery you’re at, the things that others say or do can trigger an unwanted response. There are some circumstances that you will encounter that make your eating disorder re-emerge no matter how far down the road to recovery you are. The way in which you react to the voice depends on your emotional and psychological well-being, together with the depth and length of your recovery, however, you’re still certain to feel triggered in specific situations and you’ll have to continuously battle to remain on the path to recovery and wellness. When you’re triggered, you feel compelled to succumb to your eating disorder and this means there’s a major risk of relapse.
The things that may trigger your eating disorder behaviors will vary between individuals, but there are some common ones that include:
- Numbers – numbers that relate to body size or diet may prove to be very problematic. Sharing weights, dress sizes or the number of pounds you “have” to lose can be extremely distressing. In these situations you may feel that you need to restrict your food intake, purge or, alternative, binge to compensate for the emotions that you’re experiencing. This can apply regardless of the reason why you’re sharing these numbers, or how unhealthy/healthy, low or high these numbers may be.
- Labels – simply being told how many calories are in a particular food can act as a trigger. It’s an obvious and instant way of comparing and judging foods, and this can cause your eating disorder to raise its head and decide that every type of food must be avoided due to its calorie content.
- Photos – photos of yourself may make you feel out of control and triggered. These days, we all take countless digital images on our smartphones and then scroll through them searching for the perfect shot, and this can lead to you judging all aspects of your being. The inevitable consequence is negative self-judgment. The angle is unflattering, your hair is a mess, you have bags under your eyes, your butt or belly looks enormous…Photographs are clear evidence of your failure to live up to your own impossible standards.
- Food – this is a challenging and unavoidable trigger. You need to eat to live, so you can’t avoid this trigger. However, just seeing food can be very triggering and the more food you see, the harder it can be to cope with it. Going to a buffet restaurant, for example, can be a nightmare. You may be triggered to binge on everything, or you might be triggered to avoid taking a plate completely. Either way, making choices over what to eat can be completely exhausting with your head telling you to eat this or don’t eat that. The more choice you have, the more difficult the decision can be. Social eating often becomes competitive. Should you be eating differently to other people at the table? Should you choose a smaller or larger portion? Should you eat something different? Should you be eating more quickly or more slowly? Trusting the choice you make can simply feel too difficult.
- Conversations – just talking about the foods you eat, your body shape or compensatory behavior that you’re putting in place can be very triggering. The nature of an eating disorder is that it tells you your body simply isn’t good enough and never will be. Food intake becomes a warzone. Finding ways to avoid conversations about body image or diet is imperative, but even a compliment can be a trigger, not to mention a criticism. Even hearing someone say that you look healthy or that they’re glad you’re eating well can be triggering.
- Insecurities – anything causing shame, embarrassment, distress or worry can be a major trigger. Eating disorders are often the preferred coping strategy to deal with stress and this old habit can die hard. The more stress you’re under, the harder it becomes to resist the urge to revert to old, unhealthy eating behaviors since they help to numb the emotional pain.
- One of the biggest triggers has to be you yourself. Seeing yourself in a mirror or in a photograph, putting your clothes on or taking your clothes off, misunderstanding or misinterpreting a comment, eating or not eating, working out or not working out, discussing your eating disorder or avoiding the discussion completely – all can cause you to revert to your old patterns of eating behavior that made you feel emotionally comforted by psychologically and physically in pain.
STRATEGIES TO COPE WITH TRIGGERS
Inevitably, triggers will present themselves during your process of recovery. Even though your disordered reaction to those triggers may appear to be automatic and beyond your control, rest assured that it’s possible to manage those urges.
The first step is to identify your own triggers. Awareness is key to being able to spot the people, situations and events that can trigger your negative emotions so you can then learn how to avoid those triggers or, when this is impossible, prepare ways of handling them in the future.
One option is to use DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). In this treatment, behavior chain analysis is utilized to help you identify which triggers lead to particular behaviors. When you use this technique, you’ll journal a chain of social, environmental and other factors which trigger problematic behaviors. When you link every event that precedes specific behaviors, you can gain valuable insight into the factors that particularly trigger you.
As with many acts of change, awareness is the first step. Identifying the events, people, and situations that trigger negative emotions will help you either avoid that particular trigger or prepare a way to handle it in the future.
Common triggers beside what we mentioned above for those in eating disorder recovery include:
- Stepping on the scale
- Clothes or grocery shopping
- Specific numbers about weight, size, and food intake
- Being surrounded by food
- Conversations about diets and weight loss
- Boredom, loneliness, and stress
- Interrupt the connection between the trigger and the eating disorder behavior.
The disordered behavioral response to a trigger is just that—a response—and as instinctual and involuntary as it feels, it is a response you can delay. When faced with an urge to restrict, binge, or purge, suspend the desire to immediately give in. Pause. Make space for the feeling that exists between the trigger and the eating disorder behavior.
Delaying or altogether resisting the urge to engage in a disordered behavior is sometimes referred to as “urge surfing.” This approach recognizes that urges come, like waves, and eventually they too will go. Uncomfortable as it is, surfing an urge allows time and unpleasant feelings to pass. It’s a form of impulse control.
- Engage in alternative behaviors.
Though eating disorder urges often feel alluring—maybe even impossible to resist—there are always other response options. Counter the negative, threatening feelings with self-compassion and gentleness. Replace the maladaptive eating disorder responses to triggers with healthier, adaptive ones.
Some suggestions include:
- Find inspirational social media accounts to follow
- Take a bubble bath
- Knead putty
- Listen to music
- Try aromatherapy
- Journal about your trigger
- Practice yoga, gratitude, or other strategies for reducing anxiety
While substitutes for eating disorder behaviors, know that these activities likely will not feel like exact equivalents, especially at first. Taking a bath may not feel exactly the same as bingeing, and journaling will not feel just like purging. The more you pair a negative feeling with a healthier activity, however, the stronger that link becomes and more effective the response strategy is. These unpleasant thoughts and feelings decrease with time.
As seemingly uncontrollable as the eating disorder response can feel—and as ever-present as the triggers can seem—you are entirely capable of managing them. We hope you find power in naming and interrupting your particular triggers, and then finding healthier, kinder ways to respond to them.
Remember, foods are your best friends, not your enemies.