Anxiety can feel extremely overwhelming when in recovery for an eating disorder. As I talked about in the FAQ, it is pretty much impossible to avoid anxiety when it comes to the recovery process, and that is one of the reasons as to why recovery is so difficult.
Again, as I have said in the FAQ, I use this metaphor for eating disorders and recovery: There is a terrifying dragon in your garden, and every time you try to leave your house the dragon tries to eat you. You have a choice: you can resign yourself to being trapped in your house forever, or you can find a weapon and go out and fight it.
These are the choices you have regarding your eating disorder. You can either choose to remain trapped by it or you can face yours fears and fight it. You can only make the anxiety calm down and eventually stop altogether by facing your fears regarding food, weight, and other eating disorder habits. You can only make it stop by going against your eating disorder. For example, check out this path below:
This path has been created by people walking along it. Someone walked that way then another person did then another, and they all kept walking over this one track more and more, making the path deeper and more worn in until it was a very clear path that everyone would now automatically follow rather than walking along the grass beside it. This is what happens in your brain: the more you do something the more it becomes the norm to follow. So if you respond to your eating disorder over and over again, that becomes the habit to follow and not doing it creates anxiety. When you fight against your eating disorder, you start treading on the grass that isn’t the path. At first this is anxiety-provoking and scary, because it is not the norm, and it will continue to be scary for a while, but each time you are making more of a path in a different route. Eventually, that route will become a solid pathway, and the other one will start to disappear as grass starts to grow on it again. Eventually the old route will disappear and the new one will become the norm. What I am saying is that to do new things creates new neural pathways in the brain, making your new behaviours eventually become normalised (right now your old behaviours – those created by your eating disorder – are normalised because you have repeated them so often). This is when the anxiety will start to lessen. The more you do something the easier it will become, and eventually it will become easy, and the norm.
So anxiety is going to be something that you experience during your recovery. Maybe that anxiety occurs before you challenge yourself, maybe it occurs during, or maybe it occurs after, but either way, it’s there, and you don’t know what to do about it. You probably feel like responding to your eating disorder, which is probably telling you either not to challenge yourself, or to compensate for doing so. Ignore that voice. I know it is extremely hard but that voice is trying to make you sick. It is trying to get you to live in misery. Ultimately, it is trying to kill you. So how do you cope with that extreme anxiety when it is upon you?
One thing that is important is distinguishing its voice from yours. Recognise what is you, and what is the eating disorder. Argue with it. Use your rationality. Use your logic. Use the facts against the negative feelings it is trying to evoke in you. Beat it with logic.
One of the best ways to deal with anxiety is to use distraction techniques. When you are feeling anxious, distract yourself by doing what you can get most absorbed in. Here is a list of suggestions:
- Watch a movie
- Read a book
- Paint or draw
- Knit or sew
- Research something you are interested in
- Play XBOX
- Play games on your phone
- Do fun internet quizzes
- Play computer games
- Call a friend or family member
- Meet up with someone
- Watch a documentary
- Play a musical instrument
- Do homework
- Tidy your room
- Do some internet shopping
- Take photographs
- Do puzzles
Puzzles in particular are very good for distraction as they really engage your mind and so distract you from the negative emotions you are experiencing.
Other things that you can do include:
- Doing things which evoke a different emotion in you from the one you are experiencing. This could mean reading emotional books or letters, or looking at photos that bring up happy memories. It could mean watching films that evoke a different emotion to anxiety, such as a comedy, romance, or even a horror! It’s also good to listen to happy music when feeling sad, or calm music when feeling anxious. We tend to listen to angry music when we are angry, or sad music when we are sad, but this only reinforced the emotion rather than helping it to settle down.
- If you are really, really anxious, and feel like you can’t contain yourself and are reaching a very intense level of anxiety, you can use the ice diving technique. If you are on beta blockers, have a heart condition, or any other medical condition, consult a healthcare provider before doing this. The ice diving technique means filling a bowl with ice, and sticking your face in it. This lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature, which helps with distressing emotions and reactions and lowers the anxiety levels. It can take around 15-30 seconds for the effects to occur.
- Changing your environment can be good when you are anxious. Whether that means going to an imaginary safe place in your head, going to a place in your house where you feel most safe, going for a brief calm walk, or going to a friends house, a change in scenery can help calm you down.
- Keep your reasons to recover in mind and find purpose in those negative emotions. For example: “I’m doing this because I want to recover.” Knowing that these negative emotions are playing a part in moving forwards can help.
- Relax your body. Tensing up, which is a natural reaction to anxiety and stress, signals to your body that you are in danger and therefore continues to make you feel anxious. Try to relax. Let your shoulders drop. Lean back into a sofa or lie down on the bed. Unclench your muscles. This signals to your body that you are not in danger, and so can decrease anxiety.
Anxiety relating to recovery from an eating disorder is unpleasant at best, and overwhelmingly awful at worst, but it is something that can be managed, and something that will improve when it as your recovery progresses. If you can, do get a therapist to help you to help yourself throughout this difficult time. Hang in there, you can do this!