Tag Archives: anxiety management

Counting Calories and Recovery

numbers

It seems like something that would be counter-productive to suggest, but counting calories is a really important part of recovery – especially during the initial stages. Counting calories is very likely a large part of you or your child’s (or partner’s/sibling’s/friend’s et) eating disorder, so it can seem like madness to say ‘continue doing this’, but hear me out.

Whilst counting calories was used as a way to restrict, it now needs to be used as a way to heal. So we are turning around a negative habit and using it to make sure that the person recovering gets enough energy into their body. Getting enough energy is essential for recovery, and it is likely to be something that proves impossible to do unless someone is counting the calories of the person recovering.

For most people it will be you; the recoverer, that counts. Sometimes it will be parents or partners. Either way, those calories need to be counted because after an eating disorder, people have unreliable hunger cues. The body has gone so long without food that it has repressed the signals, and so it can take a long time for reliable hunger cues to return again and for the body to learn to expect food and give signs as to when it needs it. This can mean that eating can feel like a chore to some. It could mean that you will have no appetite and feel too full, but it is important to ensure that you continue eating adequately regardless. It could mean that you feel really hungry sometimes, but other times have no appetite. Respond to any hunger or cravings that you have, and continue eating enough even when you don’t have an appetite. You may have reliable hunger cues straight away, which would be great and would lead you to eat what you need to eat in order to recover. Responding to mental hunger is also really important. Mental hunger is just another signal from the brain to tell you that you are hungry. All signals come from the brain, and it is crucial to listen. So if you don’t feel the physical signs of hunger but are wanting or craving food, then it is necessary to listen to that signal and respond to it – always.

So how are you going to count calories? I would advise staying away from apps such as MyFitnessPal, as they can be incredibly triggering due to the fact that they try to suggest restrictive amounts to eat, and they are an app focused on weight loss. You could just use a ‘notes’ app and count it up yourself and keep the number on record for the day there, or you could write ‘500’ as many times as adds up to how much you need to eat on a sheet of paper or on a notes app on your phone, and just cross it off every time you reach 500 calories. This can mean that you know you are getting closer to your goal but don’t need to count the number if not thinking of the number helps. If your parents or partner are very involved in your recovery, they could do the counting for you if this is possible and more beneficial for your recovery.

Calorie counting can be triggering for many people, but the alternative of under-eating is much more harmful. Under-eating – which many people in recovery will do due to unreliable hunger cues if they do not count calories or have them counted for them – will mean that the body cannot heal. Mental and physical recovery are interconnected, so if the body is not getting enough energy, this will also impact on mental recovery also. Under-eating means that neither mental nor physical recovery will be able to take place, so counting calories until your hunger is reliable is a necessity. This is one habit that will have to be saved until a bit later to break – which is okay, because there are many habits and thought processes to manage, change, and break, and there has to be something that is saved until last (or later on)!

So you’ve been counting calories for a while and making sure you that you get the energy that your body needs. How do you know when you can stop counting and start going by hunger? When you start feeling like your hunger is happening in a reliable way which is consistent with when you should be eating and how much you should be eating, you can start thinking about testing out that hunger to make sure that it is naturally bringing you to the amount you need. A good way to test how reliable your hunger is, is to write out everything you eat for a week (or two weeks), and then count it up for each day, add it all up to get the total amount, and divide it by seven (or fourteen). The average figure should come to around the amount that is suggested as the minimum for you to eat during your recovery (this is around the amount that you should need forever). If it is three hundred to four hundred calories below that total, then I would really suggest that you continue to count calories as your hunger signals are likely to be unreliable. Most people will naturally and intuitively eat the amount recommended for them, or close to it, as this is the amount that an energy-balanced body needs each and every day. Some people do have hunger that is below or above the average (for example, someone who is expected to need 3000 calories for their age, gender, height, and activity levels could find that they naturally eat 2400, or 3600), and that is absolutely okay. However, if you are eating more than three hundred to four hundred less than what is recommended as adequate, it is more than likely that it is your hunger cues that are unreliable and you still have a little way to go before they are back to normal. If, say, 2400 calories is your normal hunger, eating 3000 for while longer will not have a negative effect on your recovery process, and will not have an impact on your weight. Your body will adapt to deal with the excess energy by putting it to good use (e.g. to continue repairing your body) or the metabolism will speed up to burn it off. (As a side note, when you are adding up your calories for those tester seven days, if one day has a really low amount, and another a higher amount, for example, 1000 calories one day and 4500 the next, this is a sign of unreliable hunger cues, even if the average does come to around the amount suggested for you. As a second side note, if you are consistently eating well above and beyond the minimum you require for recovery, your hunger cues are working and you are experiencing extreme hunger or higher energy needs still, which is totally normal for recovery).

So let’s say your hunger cues seemed reliable, and testing this out has shown that they are, now what? You can start trying to eat intuitively, but you will need to keep reassessing yourself to make sure your eating disorder is not sneaking in and manipulating the situation. It is important that you eat what you want, when you want, and don’t let the anxiety of stopping calorie counting come out in other ways, such as restricting certain foods types or resisting eating something you want because you are worried you are eating more now you have stopped counting. It is going to make you feel more out of control, but it is important to continue onwards, and not use any other behaviours.

But how do you go about stopping counting calories? Calorie counting is a hard habit to break. It can become so ingrained in you that it can happen even without consciously thinking. There will be different things that work for different people, but here is a list I put together with some suggestions about how to stop counting:

  1. Get yourself and your family to put labels over the calorie amounts on packets etc. This can deter you from looking and also remind you when out of habit you try to check that your goal is to not look and not to count.
  2. Get your family to serve you at dinner time, to challenge skewed perceptions of portion sizes, and to learn to relinquish control over amounts.
  3. Stop measuring foods or liquids.
  4. Eat intuitively for one day (or even one meal). In a week or so, try doing it for two days (or meals). Work your way up until you can ditch the habit altogether.
  5. Visit cafes, restaurants, cinemas, and other places that are uncaloried to get you used to eating meals where you don’t know the calories to face that anxiety and start to overcome it. You can then start trying to do this at home and challenging yourself there.
  6. Listen to your body and its signals (this is also something you should start doing as soon as you get into recovery, even when you are counting calories). Follow your body and tune in to what it is telling you, rather than going by calories you’ve already eaten today or any other calorie “rules” you are sticking by. Start learning to listen to mental and physical hunger, and also learn that you can also eat when you are not hungry if you fancy it.

There are only six suggestions here, and there will be countless other things that can help. If you have any tips that helped you or someone you know, write them in the comments below so that others can benefit from it too!

Counting calories and not counting calories are both big parts of the recovery process, and both relevant at different stages in your journey. Again, make sure that you are not using compensatory behaviours when you start trying to eat intuitively and stop counting calories, such as eating smaller portions, cutting out calorie dense foods, or not drinking liquid calories, out of anxiety. Learning to eat intuitively without compensating due to anxiety is a big part of recovery. You need to learn to eat what you want, when you want, without letting your ED get on the stage with you. Make sure it is not running the show, or even making compromises with you. It doesn’t have a place in the life that you are creating for yourself. This life is yours, and yours only.

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Eating Disorders and Willpower: An Absurd Association

will power

Willpower. It’s something that we associate with strength. It is something that we admire in others, and it’s something we want for ourselves. And in this day and age, it is problematically associated with dieting and weight loss. The association even extends to restrictive eating disorders. I want to tell you how wrong it is to think that the two are synonymous.

I want to firstly consult the dictionary. Let’s take a look at the definition of “will”:

Will
noun

1. the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
“she has an iron will”
synonyms: determination, firmness of purpose, fixity of purpose, will power, strength of character, resolution, resolve, resoluteness, purposefulness, single-mindedness, drive, commitment, dedication, doggedness, tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, backbone, spine; More
2. control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.
noun: willpower
“a stupendous effort of will”

A person with an eating disorder does not decide to have one. They do not have any power or control when developing or having an active eating disorder. They do not initiate action: the eating disorder does. They have no say in the matter whatsoever. So using “will” in the context of eating disorders is absurd.
Let’s also have a look at the definition of willpower itself:

noun
1. control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Again, there is no control when it comes to an eating disorder. There is certainly no self-control. In actuality, it is the opposite that is true: someone with an eating disorder is completely out of control. They are not deciding to abstain from food or drink. They are not deciding to compulsively exercise. They are not deciding to vomit their meals into toilets and trash cans. They have no control over their ever dwindling intake, the inability to eat ice cream, or the ten miles they feel they must run. The severe mental illness that they are suffering from is running the show, not the person with the illness. Eating disorders are not a choice, and to insinuate that someone with an eating disorder has willpower is to insinuate that they have a choice.

You might be someone who has previously considered an eating disorder to be a choice, and are looking for an explanation of how it is not. Let me first stress: eating disorders have a genetic link. This means that if you do not have the genes to develop an eating disorder, then you will not develop one. If you have the eating disorder gene (which is being researched: the specific gene has not been identified as of yet, and it is most likely a combination of genes, not just one) then it is possible to go through life without triggering it into action. However, if environmental factors trigger the gene (and the triggers are plentiful: dieting, bullying, death of a loved one, abuse, parents divorcing, illness, fasting – you see how these can be both emotional or physical triggers), then you will develop an eating disorder. Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger, the saying goes. So genetics have an important part to play in the development of an eating disorder, and you don’t get to choose your genes.

Here are some examples of how it works inside the mind: if you had to choose between eating a highly restrictive amount of calories and living with aching hunger, or feeling like tearing your own skin off, would you comply with your eating disorder or your hunger? If you had to choose between exercising until you felt like you might vomit and pass out or feeling so disgusting in your body that you would consider killing yourself, what choice would you make? If you had to choose between not eating a slice of pizza that you desperately crave or feeling like such a failure that you punished yourself by cutting you body multiple times in multiple places, what would you choose? And when you see those options, does it really look like much of a choice any more? Each option is torturous and punishing, but one always gets you closer to the goal of losing more weight, or at least attempting to. You’ll feel better when your body is perfect, the eating disorder says. You’ll feel better if you barely eat. You will be more in control, it lies, and there are so many lies it will tell to keep you from fighting against it. 

The more the illness pervades the mind and the sufferer responds to the eating disorder, the more things like food and weight become a source of anxiety. Each time you respond to the voice telling you not to eat or you will feel something unbearable, the more the message in reinforced in the brain. You see, when you avoid something that makes you anxious, the more the brain is told that it is something to be anxious of because it is being avoided, and the more anxious you become of it. Another sneaky way the eating disorder survives is to completely distort the perception of the sufferer, so that their body looks to them to be completely different to what anyone else sees, and in a lot of cases, the thinner they become, the fatter they feel. This way the eating disorder continues to dictate the actions and thoughts of its host (and yes, that is what you feel like: just a host to a demon that is making you diminish in size inside and outside day by day).

I could go on, but let’s get back to willpower.

Meghan Trainor caused uproar with her incomprehensible comment about her apparent lack of willpower to “go anorexic”.

I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder. I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.’

Her comment is one of such extreme ignorance that it makes my blood boil. For one, strength doesn’t come into eating disorders. Strength is something of value. It is a brilliantly positive trait to have; something you use in the face of hardship; to get through something or to defeat it. It is something that you use to fight and beat an eating disorder, not something you use to continue its existence. It does not take strength to have an eating disorder: it takes sickness and misery and intense self-hatred. It takes strength to recover. Secondly, you cannot “try to go anorexic for a good three hours”. Anorexia is first and foremost a mental illness (like all other eating disorders), not something that you can just “try” and then stop because you get a bit too hungry. “Trying” is not part of an eating disorder. You would never in a million years “try” to have an eating disorder if you understood what it entailed. It’s not about having the willpower to “go anorexic”. Any eating disorder is a disease that creeps up on you and slowly invades your mind bit by bit until it has wormed its way into every part of it, and then suddenly you realise that you are drowning in it and there is no conceivable way out. You don’t just “go anorexic” for three hours and then choose to stop. Need I say it again: there is no choice. And no, funnily enough eating ice and celery for three hours only does not mean you have a serious and deadly disease.

Willpower is inextricably linked to choice, and we know that eating disorders are not a choice, so the two cannot be thought of in conjunction with each other. Ever. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower undermines the helplessness and hopelessness that someone feels whilst being under the control of such a powerful and deadly disease. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower – a positive trait we all want – undermines the sheer anguish and torment someone suffering from one has to experience every second of every day. To say eating disorders require willpower is to inadvertently say that there is something that tortured person has that you admire. You are looking into eyes full of pain and saying, “I want what you have.

Willpower is a positive thing. Having an eating disorder is a living hell. Willpower is strength and control. Living with an eating disorder is being crushed under a dictator that ultimately wants you dead and feeling unable to do anything but obey and walk knowingly into the jaws of death. Willpower is willpower and eating disorders are eating disorders. Let’s not mix up the two.

Anxiety Management

anxiety 2

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:

path

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?

anxiety

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
  • Write
  • Paint or draw
  • Blog
  • Collage
  • 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!