Recovery isn't easy. Ask anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder, supported a loved one with an eating disorder, or a clinician who treats eating disorders. We can all tell you about the multitude of challenges and the painfully slow pace of the process.
The same advice over and over again
As someone who writes a blog about this stuff, trust me, I get it. It's easy to keep giving the same old advice again and again, presented in different ways.
Sometimes you need to pull back and take the bird's eye view and think about how you're spending your time and energy. Because recovery doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of your real life. So while you're recovering, you still have to keep on keeping on in the rest of your life too.
This is where strategy comes in.
3 ways to work smarter instead of harder:
1. Do the things that matter. It’s easy to get bombarded with information and overthink it. You can spin your wheels doing things that don’t matter. For example, I've worked with lots of people who spend tons of time reading self-help books, but never actually take the next step and implement any of the key concepts. (I'm also guilty of this!) This is an example of wasted energy. Step back and think about HOW you are approaching your recovery. How are you spending your time? And are the things you're spending your time on actually making a difference? If we look at the research literature, there are some things that will almost certainly make a difference. Here are a few of them: eating enough - dieting, restricting or depriving yourself, even if under the guise of "healthy eating" will undermine recovery; seeing your treatment team consistently – ideally a team of ED specialists who have intimate knowledge of what it takes to recover; taking medications if prescribed – meds to manage depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD and other psychiatric issues are a powerful tool in recovery. While things like journaling, yoga, and meditation have a place in recovery for some people, no amount of those things will replace these other key factors.
2. Implement a system. Don’t rely on willpower. Willpower doesn’t work because it’s finite, and it gets depleted by everyday stressors. You’ll inevitably find yourself lacking willpower with food when you most need it if you don’t have a system. Ever engaged in eating disorder behaviors on a stressful day? That’s because your willpower was depleted by the stressors. If, for example, you have a system for dealing with stressors at work such as automation of tasks, delegation, stress management techniques, and perhaps a wind-down ritual at the end of the day, you’re much less likely to use your ED behaviors to cope. Maybe you need to block out times on your calendar to dedicate to appointments with your team, auto-refills on your meds, and a dedicated day and time to planning out your meals and grocery shopping. Having a SYSTEM builds these things into your daily schedule.
3. Develop habits. People who are successful at something have boring habits. It’s never quick and easy like we’re led to believe. You don’t accidentally win an Olympic gold medal. And you don’t win it with magical solutions either, like taking supplements. Nope, it takes years of intentional and intense training. Same thing with your recovery. You don’t accidentally or magically recover from an eating disorder by journaling and taking vitamins. You need habits that you stick to every single day. Things such as taking your meds at the same time each morning, checking in with yourself emotionally at the end of the day, packing your lunch the night before, eating a snack before you exercise, etc. These are the types of habits that will pay off over time.
Systems and habits reduce the cognitive load of having to make lots of tiny decisions all day long. Just like willpower, our decision-making ability gets fatigued and we start to take what feels like the easier way out. If something is a habit you’re much more likely to do it – rather than sitting there trying to decide whether or not you feel like doing something. Chances are there are plenty of times you’re not going to feel like going to the grocery store, or cooking dinner, or going to a therapy appointment. If you only do it when you feel like it you’re probably not going to recover because the ED will capitalize on this vulnerability.
What to do today
Today, sit down and take a look at what you’re really doing for your recovery. Don’t lie to yourself, it won’t help. Be brutally honest. Write it all down.
Now compare that to what you want to be doing for your recovery.
Then identify ONE thing that you want to change. Something that if you did it, would actually make a significant difference. Find a way to implement a system around this change, and do it until it becomes a habit.
If you need help, ask for feedback from your support system – your therapist, your dietitian, your family, your friends, your support group – whoever can give you honest and helpful suggestions.
The result: You’ve now shown yourself that you can make sustainable behavior change. You can repeat this process over and over again to create new systems and habits. Keep doing it, and I promise you’ll be making strides on the path of recovery.