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How To Handle Eating Disorder Triggers


min read


If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, it may feel as if virtually everything around you is a 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 encounter a trigger, any situation can become overwhelming.

What Is A Trigger?

Triggers are stimuli that incite an incomfortable, upsetting and intense emotion. A trigger may be environmental, situational, social, physiological or psychological, but whichever form it takes, it can trigger negative reactions.

Once you’ve been triggered, you move rapidly into a reactive state where you need to find relief, distraction or an escape from the uncomfortable emotion you’re experiencing. If you have 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.

Identifying Your 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.

Disrupting The Negative Connections

The next step is to disrupt the connections between the triggers you experience and the eating disorder patterns of behavior. Your disordered behavioral responses to triggers are just responses, and, as involuntary and instinctual as they may feel, those responses can be delayed. When you’re faced with the urge to purge, binge or restrict your food intake, you need to work hard to suspend your desire to give in immediately. Allow there to be a gap that lets you fully experience the feeling that exists between your trigger and your eating disorder patterns of behavior.

If you can delay or resist the urge completely to engage in your disordered behaviors, this is sometimes known as “urge surfing”. The approach acknowledges that urges will come, like a wave, but, also just like a wave, they will eventually go too. Uncomfortable though it may be, when you surf an urge, this allows enough time to permit the unpleasant emotions to pass. Essentially, it’s a type of impulse control.

Substituting Negative Behaviors For Positive Ones

Although your eating disorder urges can feel alluring and virtually impossible to resist, rest assured that there are other possible response options for you to rely on instead. Counter your threatening and negative feelings with gentleness and self-compassion, and replace your maladaptive responses with adaptive, healthier ones.

For example, you can find some inspirational accounts on social media platforms to follow, or listen to some relaxing music. You could try practicing yoga, deep breathing strategies or mindfulness to reduce your anxiety, or write a gratitude journal. You could even try aromatherapy, knead some putty or take a bubble bath – essentially, anything that makes you feel more positive, more relaxed and more calm is a good choice of alternative behavior and can be harnessed to replace the negative eating disorder behaviors that you have been used to relying upon.

Although these are substitutdes for your eating disorder behaviors, it’s important to be aware that activities like these won’t feel like equivalents, particularly in the beginning. After all, taking a bubble bath won’t feel the same as having a binge, and writing a journal about your emotional triggers and thoughts won’t feel exactly like purging or restricting food. However, the more yyour negative feelings are paired with healthy activities, the stronger the link will become and the more effective your response strategy will be. Those unpleasant feelings and thoughts will then decrease over time.

Although your eating disorder response may seem to be uncontrollable and the number of triggers that you encounter can seem to be insurmountable, rest assured that you’re capable of coping with them and managing them. When you can name then interrupt your triggers, you can find kinder and healthier ways of responding to them.

Getting Support From Your Network

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If you feel triggered, it’s important to reach out and get help from somebody within your support network. Nobody has to battle their eating disorder or any trigger alone. If you can reach out to a friend, family member, or support group when you feel particularly vulnerable you can reduce the isolation and shame that you’re feelings. Make an appointment to see your nutritionist or therapist, or just talk to a mentor or loved one, and this will bring you extra support and help when you feel most triggered.

It’s especially helpful if you can tell the person you reach out to what you require from them at that moment. Nobody is a mind reader, so your friend, family member, mentor or loved one won’t know how you feel at this challenging moment. Share with them what they’re able to do to bring you the support you need, whether that be just listening to you while you vent, engaging with you in a fun and distracting activity, or helping you to find a new way to cope with your trigger.

If you find that your triggers are interfering too much with your recovery or eating, you should seek medical advice here at The Meadowglade. There is help and support out there for those who most need it, and with the right counseling, therapy and treatment, it’s possible to identify each eating disorder trigger, to take action to disrupt the connection between the trigger and the negative behavior, and to find new and more positive ways of coping, even in the most difficult and triggering situations that you encounter.

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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