How to Handle Unexpected Disordered Eating Triggers Post-Recovery

Trigger warning: diet culture and disordered eating.

When you’ve dealt with some kind of eating disorder in the past and have found a way into recovery and healing, the process and experience itself feels like an alternate reality. For me, it’s a bunch of odd vignettes haphazardly stitched together in my brain. I couldn’t tell you when it had hit me, but there are crystal-clear memories from the entire experience. There are still several, years later, that quietly follow me around. There’s me at 13, silently sobbing in the dressing room at Kohl’s when I had gone up a size. I can recall my so-called friends from toxic online chat rooms, encouraging me to vilify food, lessen how much I ate, and my weird little notebook of “thinspo” and horrible “diet tips” pulled from Tumblr and other dark corners of the web.  

I’ll be forever grateful I had the privilege and opportunity to go to group therapy, chat with countless therapists, and have a small, but strong support system. But I know not everyone receives the same—and with this year’s pandemic I can see how easy it is to fall back into old habits, ones you used to so heavily rely on.

With terms like “quarantine fifteen” and “lockdown belly” being coined, it’s increasingly frustrating for anyone to keep up a positive body image, but especially for those who have overcome and currently have eating disorders. Everywhere you look seems to be an opportunity for someone to make you question your diet and exercise habits while being locked down at home. Personally, it was my move out to the UK that brought with it a whole set of triggers I wasn’t expecting. 

The country as a whole implemented new measures to its “obesity strategy,” in the middle of a pandemic, mind you, which includes things like canceling two-for-one deals on “unhealthy” foods and printing calories on menus. Not only is this a time where we should be more gentle with ourselves, but there’s never an excuse to encourage unhealthy relationships with food, especially not now. I don’t want other teens and young adults to discover the way you can use calories as a method of control and destruction and to view comfort foods and enjoyable moments of eating takeout on the couch or savoring an ice cream as behaviors to frown upon.

Melissa Epifano
Melissa Epifano

These new protocols are triggering for many I assume, and I found the unexpected moments seemed to pop out everywhere during lockdown—and somehow worsened when things started opening up. My first night out to a socially distant pub with my boyfriend and another couple ended up being a slap in the face. The night was winding down and I decided to opt out of a glass of wine—and the waitress wasn’t having it. “God, look at you. You’re probably one of those bitches who doesn’t eat,” adding with a laugh that “you’re probably one of those bitches who exercises, too.” I was stunned and instantly pulled back into a mindset I’ve worked so hard to overcome. It may have been two crass sentences to an average person, but for me, it was two painful cuts for someone who didn’t want to go back into battle against herself again.

Laurie Wollman, LCPC and site director at The Renfrew Center, notes that things like this are unfortunately unavoidable in most cases, but possible to prepare for. “The first step in combating these triggers is to identify your triggers. Knowing ahead of time what triggers negative emotions will help in preparing for how to manage the situation,” she says. “Second, recognize that the distressing emotion will not last forever. This helps in delaying or resisting the urge to act on the disordered behavior.” The last step is following through with a healthy behavior to help balance out the stress you just encountered, and preventing you from falling back onto unhealthy habits you may have once turned to.

"I let them know they have a choice not to collude with diet culture. This can be very empowering and also exhausting."

Triggers can happen at the most off-putting times, but standing strong in the mindset that it has nothing to do with you can also be a lifesaver. “Triggers are often throw away comments people make without knowledge of how damaging these comments to have on those around them and even to themselves,” says Carolyn Karoll, a licensed clinical social worker and certified eating disorder specialist. “Making self-deprecating [comments] about one’s body is normalized in out society to the extent that body bashing and diet talk becomes a way that people, bond with one and another.”

To combat this stress and normalized behavior from others, she suggests challenging these cultural perceptions and remembering that you weren’t born despising your body. “[Clients] can often recall the very comments they internalized which left them feeling something was wrong with them, their appetites were something to be ashamed of and food was to be feared. I let them know they have a choice not to collude with diet culture. This can be very empowering and also exhausting,” she says. When it comes to fighting triggers in the heat of the situation, Karoll says that it can be helpful having a prepared list of topics in your head to change the subject. Ignoring the comment completely also gives you more control of the situation.

"It’s worth taking the time to do a social audit and cleanse your life of products, images, and even people that are contribute to pushing you over the edge and back into toxic patterns."

This conversation also can’t be had without mentioning what we’re seeing on a daily basis through social. I for one get easily thrown into an unhealthy mindset when I spend countless hours scrolling through images of conventionally beautiful models and influencers and accounts that flout a new magical workout or diet. And according to Karoll, limiting your exposure here is vital, too. “While you can’t control the media or what other people say around you, you can design your life to limit your exposure and create a safe space in your home and on social media.’

“This can include getting rid of the scale, choosing not to watch certain shows/movies that promote the thin ideal, avoiding diet/light foods, and curating your social media by unfollowing people who promote diet culture and follow those who promote body diversity and acceptance, the health at every size (HAES) approach and/or causes that are related to one’s values as opposed to appearance,” she says. It’s worth taking the time to do a social audit and cleanse your life of products, images, and even people that are contribute to pushing you over the edge and back into toxic patterns.

It goes without saying that quarantine has no doubt made working through things even more difficult and has made it so easy to grasp at your old way of life. But I strongly believe that if you’ve found the strength to pull yourself out of an eating disorder, with the help of loved ones, therapists, and coping mechanisms, we’ll be able to power ourselves forward and keep unexpected triggers in check.

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