Eating Disorders – Treatment and Recovery

As somebody who suffered from an eating disorder for many years in the past, one of the questions I get asked most is, ‘Do you believe you can fully recover from an eating disorder?’ My answer to this is undoubtedly, yes. Whilst at their worst eating disorders can be fatal, people can and do recover from them. This blog aims to cover some of the top tools and tips that helped me in my personal recovery as well as discussing some of the most widely used techniques and treatments.

  1. Don’t aim for ‘complete recovery’

This might sound disheartening, but hear me out…For many years during my recovery the idea of living without an eating disorder seemed impossible and to aim for that felt too disheartening to even try. Every tiny step and challenge took all of my effort and strength and quite often left me panicking for days and in those moments I would never have believed recovery was achievable. My advice with recovering from eating disorders, as with any huge change which feels daunting at first, is to take one step/ day/challenge at a time. We all know that you get to the top of a staircase by taking one step at a time. If you aim to simply jump straight to the top – chances are you will fail, miss and question whether it is possible at all. All you need to do to progress is keep taking the next step and being consistent. Quite often it’s not until you stop and observe that you see how far you’ve come and that’s definitely my experience of recovery. I can’t pinpoint the exact time that I no longer ’had’ an eating disorder, it was just a case of repeatedly taking steps towards recovery. 

Therapy can be useful in treating eating disorders

2) Go to Therapy (most commonly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)

This is no big secret, as CBT is now one of the most widely used therapies in tackling mental health issues, with good reason. As the name suggests, CBT works on changing both thoughts and behaviours. This is essential with eating disorders as sufferers will have a lot of rigid, and irrational thoughts and behaviours around not only food but also themselves and other aspects of their lives. It can be incredibly scary and difficult to change ingrained thoughts and behaviours and support of a qualified therapist is invaluable. During my CBT we addressed things such as my ‘black and white thinking’. Examples of this would be ‘if I eat this biscuit I am weak and have let everyone down’ and ‘if I eat only healthy foods I will be perfect and everybody will like me’. Of course reading or saying these now seems ridiculous, but this shows just how extreme and overwhelming the thoughts and behaviours around an eating disorder can be. It’s essential to change them and therapists have the knowledge and experience to facilitate and support this. Recovering from an eating disorder really has given me faith in the saying ‘if you change your thoughts, you change your world’, as ultimately recovery must happen in the mind to happen in the body.

3) Don’t forget your Diet!

Again, this might seem obvious, as of course changes to the diet are essential in eating disorder recovery. However, as somebody who views their recovery very much from the ‘mental’ aspect, it’s important to point out that you cannot recover from an eating disorder without changing some behaviours around food and in the case of anorexia, gaining weight. I remember in the early stages of my recovery trying so hard to change my thinking around food but heavily resisting changing my behaviours. I essentially wanted to feel mentally well but maintain my severely underweight figure that had become my safety blanket from the outside world (see previous blog for more details on this). One thing my therapist helped me to do was to create a list of ‘fear foods’, ranking the foods I found most difficult to eat from one to 10. People with eating disorders very often have ‘safe’ foods and then those which the thought of consuming terrifies them. We started at number 10 and gradually worked up the list until I was consuming all of my fear foods on a regular basis. A common side effect of eating disorders is that sufferers can lack in certain vitamins, minerals and even macronutrients and so dietitians can help with eating plans to address this. Work may also be done to normalise portion sizes and frequency of eating. As part of reaching a healthy weight, it may be essential for sufferers to limit how often they weigh themselves as seeing the numbers on a scale can be enough to revert back to unhealthy control mechanisms.

Dieticians can help with eating disorder recovery plans

4) Make time for Mindfulness

Mindfulness has attracted an increasing amount of attention and research over recent years and is now widely incorporated into therapies such as CBT, and I can honestly say it changed my life. One of the reasons why eating disorder recovery is so difficult is that there’s a rational part of your brain that knows your thoughts and behaviours are harmful and dysfunctional, however you cannot simply ‘stop’ them. Even once you’ve started to gain weight and things may look healed from the outside, it’s common to still battle with thoughts that drive the eating disorder inside and so you can find yourself almost arguing with your own thoughts which is exhausting and upsetting. Mindfulness is essentially awareness and acceptance of whatever is, in the present moment. It was a revelation that I could accept certain thoughts existed but simply let them go and not engage with or act on them. A key part of mindfulness is that it’s none-judgmental and we don’t have to label thoughts or behaviours as ‘good’, ‘bad’ or anything else. There are no thoughts that we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have. We simply observe and use our own choice over what we act on, react to and engage with. This can be a revolutionary concept in all areas of life, not just when it comes to eating disorders.

Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and involves being in the present moment

5) Help Yourself!

Whilst I found ‘conventional’ treatment to be extremely useful and an absolute lifeline just when I needed it most, it really was only the start of my full recovery journey. I’ve always been somebody who wants to know how to do things for myself and so it triggered what I believe will be a lifelong passion and interest in self-help, personal development and all things mental health and happiness. As I discussed in my last blog, eating disorders are often rooted in low self-esteem, anxiety, trauma and/or other issues that may well benefit from an ‘holistic’ approach to healing. Different things work for different people but don’t underestimate the therapeutic effects of creative pursuits such as music, art, journaling and being in nature. Some people find purpose and passion in caring for animals, signing up to a new course of study or volunteering for a charity that’s close to their heart. Self-care can help such as taking long baths, getting massages to help befriend your body, face masks or regular movie nights alone.  Read books, watch TED talks, listen to podcasts or follow body positive accounts on social media. These are just a few of the infinite possibilities there are in this world to help you heal and strengthen in the way that you need. Whilst other people may have been where you are before, they’ve never been there in your shoes and so listening to what conventional treatment dictates you need is ideal to a certain point. From that point on I’d strongly encourage you to continue supporting your own healing and trusting yourself to explore whatever it is you feel you need to support your mind, body and soul.

To finish off this blog, it’s important that I stress that like many physical conditions, some mental illnesses never do go away. This applies not only to eating disorders but also depression, anxiety, PTSD and so on. It is by no means a failure if somebody does not ‘fully recover’ from these conditions, as it is more than possible to live happy, meaningful, fulfilling lives whilst managing them. The tips in this blog are simply what helped me on my journey to recovery and I hope they can help others to feel their best too, whatever that looks like for them.

If you have any questions please contact Mike at Hamers360fitness or Bev (see below). The next blog covers exercise as part of eating disorder recovery or for anybody looking to gain weight.

Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer/ Exercise Referral Officer and Complementary Therapist. Instagram @bevs_life