First off, right off the top, it needs to be stated that this article is no substitute for medical assistance and support, and neither is it intended to be a self-diagnostic tool. Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder), body dysmorphia, and hypergymnasia (when one exercises excessively) are all cases where working with a professional is absolutely critical to safe and healthy recovery.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there are 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States who will suffer from a clinically diagnosable eating disorder in their lifetime. On top of those 30 million, there are also people who suffer from an EDNOS, (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) who have a disordered relationship with food, but don’t meet the criteria the Diagnostic Statistical Manual says constitutes a recognized eating disorder. And unfortunately, the incidence of new cases of eating disorders being diagnosed has been on the rise since 1950.
The purpose of this article is to outline self-care tips and resources you can use if you think you may be suffering from symptoms of disordered eating.
1. Admit to yourself something is wrong
For anyone to make real, long-lasting change, they must admit there is something wrong and possess the authentic desire to make a change. It is critically important to couple this desire with proper medical care when coping with an eating disorder, as there are usually underlying psychological issues present as well.
2. Clarify your situation with online assessments
If you are not entirely sure if you are suffering from an eating disorder or EDNOS, there are many online assessment tools to consider. Again, these are not designed to replace a professional evaluation, nor do they provide an official diagnosis, but can offer insight and clarity for you moving forward. A quick web search for eating disorder assessment tools will turn up a variety of resources you can use to assess your symptoms.
3. Tell someone
Sharing with someone that you are suffering from disordered eating can be incredibly challenging, frightening and inevitably quite daunting, especially if you have carried this secret for a long period of time.
You might want to tell a friend or family member, or someone else with whom you have a strong relationship and that you trust to offer a safe space when confiding in them. If you’re not sure how to approach the situation, look for resources that provide scripts and tips for having this difficult but potentially transformative conversation.
4. Get help
Once you have told someone you are suffering from an eating disorder, or have disordered thoughts about food or your body, it is also wise to reach out to someone trained to provide you with the proper care. In fact, this is crucial even if you decide not to tell any of your loved ones.
This might mean speaking to your medical doctor, a pharmacist, a counsellor or therapist, or even a teacher at school. If you’re employed, your workplace might have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where you can access help for free, or your local public health unit could be of help. There are also plenty of online resources that can connect you with professional help.
5. Consider treatment centers
Depending on your prognosis and how your doctor and/or therapist want to address your eating disorder, there are also inpatient treatment centres where you can go for more intensive, monitored care. While the idea of spending time in a treatment facility may seem frightening, taking time away from your everyday life to focus on recovery can be just the drastic step you need to take to truly get better.
6. Look into support groups
When going through any kind of change, having the ability to speak about what you’re going through and having the support of others is crucial. You may find yourself better able to cope when surrounded by others who are dealing with the same types of challenges you are facing.
The purpose of a support group is to provide a safe, non-judgement, confidential space where everyone is able to share their experiences, discuss resources, as well as ultimately form a social network. It’s easy to find information about support groups in your area, as well as meetings for those who have a family member, friend, or relative suffering from an eating disorder.
7. Limit your exposure to negative media
Our culture is body-obsessed. Everywhere you look there’s a sculpted, bronzed, hair-free body in your line of sight. (That goes for men and women alike!) Ads on TV, the bus, movie posters, and even signs at fast-food restaurants are sources of these images.
It’s impossible to escape completely, but one thing we can do is try and limit additional exposure. This might mean not purchasing fashion magazines, looking at fitness websites or online blogs about what might be extreme “healthy eating,” or watching Entertainment News TV shows. All of these forums can exacerbate issues for those dealing with an eating disorder due to the constant exposure to our society’s extreme body standards. On the more extreme end, there are even pro-eating disorder websites, phone apps and blogs that should absolutely be avoided at all costs.
If you are unsure if what you are looking at might be harming you psychologically, one simple way is to check in with yourself after any type of exposure and see how you’re feeling. If you feel worse than before, notice your self-talk is destructive or feel inspired to engage in harmful practices, then whatever it is you’re looking at might not be for you at this current time.
8. Increase your self-awareness
Developing self-awareness around your views on food, your body, your exercise practices, and your self-worth can be very helpful in your healing practice. Some people choose to document their thoughts, when they occurred, if there was something in particular that triggered them, and what actions they might have taken after thinking them. This is helpful information not only for you to learn more about yourself and possible patterns that might appear, but also for your healthcare practitioner to learn more about your particular case. It is strongly encouraged that if you learn something about yourself you find disturbing or challenging to process or move forward with, seek professional assistance to get the care you need.
9. Recognize the ways we all put ourselves down
Most people in our culture – not just those who are suffering from eating disorders – could use a little more self-compassion. Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world where it’s cool to put ourselves down. Most people even struggle to just accept a compliment!
If your self-talk is a never-ending ticker tape of how badly you suck, it’s close to impossible to start taking steps towards being kinder to yourself.
10. Practice radical self-love
Start your day off by standing in front of the mirror and saying five things you like about yourself, or feel you are good at. You might not believe any of it in the beginning, but over time, persistence will pay off. Practicing deliberate positive self-talk will help you reframe your thinking and develop more self-compassion.
11. Watch out for disordered eating disguised as health-consciousness
Information on the latest diets and eating programs, ways to change up your exercise regime to get bigger muscles, and simple tools to count calories are all just a mouse click (or finger tap) away. And although access to information about healthy lifestyles can be empowering, it is also detrimental if not used with awareness.
The term “Orthorexia,” which first appeared back in 1997, means that for those suffering from it, “eating healthily has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes physically dangerous disorder.” Sound familiar?
It can be seen when someone is constantly fixated with the quality or type of food they eat, when someone only eats extremely “cleanly” to the point of obsession, or even when someone cuts out entire food groups (and not because it’s medically necessary). Orthorexia is not currently classified in the DSM as an eating disorder, but is an example of a type of disordered relationship with food. It’s important to keep in mind that disordered eating takes more forms than the anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating we’re all familiar with.
12. Find balance
Many people who struggled with disordered eating find their symptoms get worse when they’re under stress – even when the stress has nothing to do with food or body image. Take some of the pressure off yourself by being mindful of your workload and practice relaxation by journaling, doing yoga, meditating, or doing breathing exercises. You’re worth it.
13. Treat other disorders
Like many mental health issues, eating disorders frequently come hand in hand with other disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The combination of two or more disorders can create a situation in which both disorders feed off each other and make recovery even more difficult. If you’re struggling to approach your disordered eating head on, seeking professional diagnosis and treatment for other mental health issues you face can create a positive snowball effect.