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5 Coping Strategies to Use When Living With an Eating Disorder

Eating disorder recovery is a journey. Here's where to start.

Taylor Leamey Senior Writer
Taylor Leamey writes about all things wellness, specializing in mental health, sleep and nutrition coverage. She has invested hundreds of hours into studying and researching sleep and holds a Certified Sleep Science Coach certification from the Spencer Institute. Not to mention the years she spent studying mental health fundamentals while earning her bachelor's degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She is also a Certified Stress Management Coach.
Expertise Sleep, Mental Health, Nutrition and Supplements Credentials
  • Certified Sleep Science Coach, Certified Stress Management Coach
Taylor Leamey
Medically Reviewed
Reviewed by: Vivian Sun
Dr. Vivian Sun is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her medical degree from University of Maryland and psychiatry training at University of Pennsylvania and Stanford. She is board certified in general and child/adolescent psychiatry and specializes in the treatment of conditions such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.
Expertise ADHD | Autism | Anxiety | Depression | Bipolar Disorder | PTSD Credentials
  • Medical Board of California, Medical License
  • American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, General and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • University of Maryland School of Medicine, Doctor of Medicine -- Residency in Psychiatry University of Pennsylvania
  • Fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Stanford University
5 min read
Young woman staring down at a plate with a tomato on it, depicting an eating disorder.
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It's National Eating Disorder Awareness week, so let's talk about how difficult living with an eating disorder can really be. Everyday situations can be unexpectedly triggering, and in those moments it's easy to fall back on disordered eating patterns. If left untreated, eating disorders can significantly hinder your ability to function and compromise your health. 

But there's hope. Eating disorders are something you can manage, with help. They don't have to rule your life. Below we'll go through what they are, why they happen and common signs of eating disorders. We'll even talk about helpful strategies to manage them. 

What is an eating disorder?

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Eating disorders are mental health conditions marked by significant disturbances in eating behaviors to the point that it impacts functioning. They can develop in any age, gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. They aren't lifestyles or just bad habits someone picked up; eating disorders can be life-threatening. 

Disordered eating is unique for everyone, which means there is no one correct journey for recovery. However, it should always start with a diagnosis to ensure you have access to proper treatment options. 

Common types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: This eating disorder is marked by a fear of gaining weight or a fixation on how much they weigh. Anorexia is often associated with abnormally low body weight, though it's not limited to any body type. 
  • Bulimia Nervosa: People struggling with bulimia will cycle through bouts of binging, guilt about eating and then self-induced purging. 
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Unlike with bulimia, people with binge eating disorder don't purge. Instead, they eat large quantities of food and feel like they have no control to stop. 

Eating disorder symptoms

Everyone's journey with an eating disorder will be unique to them. However, there are common signs and symptoms of eating disorders to watch out for. 

Common eating disorder symptoms:

  • Significant restrictions on what and how much you eat
  • Preoccupation with weight and body shape
  • Distorted body image
  • Extremely low weight and a continued pursuit of losing weight
  • Regularly skipping meals or cutting out food groups
  • Withdrawal from loved ones

Additional physical symptoms include difficulty concentrating, menstrual irregularities, dizziness and stomach cramps. The long-term side effects that someone with an eating disorder may experience are a compromised immune system, trouble sleeping and low thyroid levels. 

What causes an eating disorder

Eating disorders are complicated mental health illnesses, so the exact cause is unknown. However, contributing factors may influence the development of disordered eating. 

  • Biological factors: Someone's genetics may predispose them to eating disorders, especially if a history of mental illness runs in the family. Certain medical conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, also may increase the risk of an eating disorder. 
  • Psychological health: Someone's mental health is one of the most important factors contributing to eating disorders. If someone has low self-esteem or struggles with perfectionism, they may be more likely to struggle with disordered eating. Those with comorbid disorders like depression, anxiety or substance abuse orders also have an increased risk. 
  • Environmental factors: Someone's environment plays a large role in eating disorders. Whether it be family dynamics or observed disordered eating, what someone is exposed to can increase their chances of developing one. 

5 strategies to manage an eating disorder

Managing disordered eating is a lifelong road. Adding the right tools and strategies to your arsenal can help you manage an eating disorder and avoid triggers so you can enjoy social situations without stress.

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1. Plan to address triggers

Unfortunately, it's impossible to avoid all triggers. Especially during family gatherings and social events, people with eating disorders face difficult situations that can cause strain on their recovery. 

Establishing a plan will ensure you aren't caught off guard or surprised by what people say or do. And if you are faced with triggers, you know how to ease stress and react appropriately to your needs. Maintaining healthy coping skills and strategies is difficult when you're stressed. Anticipating stress and giving yourself a plan can help you stay in control of things.

2. Listen to your body

Whether you're a seasoned intuitive eater or not, it's crucial you're mindful of what your body is telling you. Throughout the outings, take note of feelings of hunger or fullness and don't ignore them. It's okay to give your body the things it needs. 

As much as you can, avoid a cycle of deprivation, which can make you feel overwhelmed and out of control in social settings. It's also good to stick to your normal meal times on your recovery journey. 

3. Don't abandon self-care

Self-care is a simple tool but one of the most important parts of living with an eating disorder and managing stress. If you're feeling anxious or on edge, step back and do something relaxing. Maybe it's something as simple as snuggling with a pet, taking some alone time or going for a walk. 

Build in time for self-care during big events. It keeps you in control and ensures you have the space to take care of your needs. Make sure not to overbook yourself or stretch yourself too thin. Cutting out unnecessary plans or obligations gives you time to implement self-care.

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4. Focus on self-compassion

Just because you are struggling or living with a living disorder doesn't mean you're failing. Living with disordered eating is difficult, and you deserve compassion, especially from yourself. Self-compassion isn't excusing things you don't like or aren't proud of; it's giving yourself a little grace to continue your journey. 

Start by making an effort to recognize and eliminate negative self-talk. Reframe the automatic negative thought about yourself into something more productive. And never forget to celebrate the wins and the progress you've made.

Self-compassion tips to use in group settings:

  • Avoid perfectionism. Set goals or standards that you can live up to. 
  • Give yourself room to make mistakes or indulge. 
  • Remind yourself that food provides your body with essential nutrients. 

5. Communicate boundaries

Setting boundaries can minimize accidental triggers of friends and family who may comment on what you're eating or your body. If your trigger is diet talk or pressure to eat more, tell your family and friends so they can be conscious of what they talk about. You can ensure you're not pushed too far by having the conversation early and as often as needed. 

You can also designate a buddy to check on you throughout the night. Lean on them if you're feeling overwhelmed. 

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How to get help for an eating disorder

Recovery from an eating disorder is a long journey; you don't have to do it alone. A support system of family and friends is essential, but it's not the only resource you have available to you. If you are losing weight, experiencing physical symptoms or feel like you're not in control anymore, seek treatment with a medical professional who has experience working with eating disorders. You will learn coping mechanisms and strategies to regain control over your condition through therapy. 

You can also use the search tool from the National Eating Disorder Association to find local treatment resources. 

Additionally, there are crisis intervention resources available. 

If you're looking for more on mental health, find out how cognitive behavioral therapy and mental health apps can help your wellness journey. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.