Remember Your WHY – Coping with Triggers in Eating Disorder Recovery

In most eating disorder recovery groups I’ve attended the inevitable debate about how to deal with triggering information always comes up. Some people believe there’s no point in censoring what patients share because triggers are (truthfully) unavoidable. Others believe that creating the safest space possible is important for navigating early recovery.

Personally, I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I believe a protective environment can be very helpful for someone in the initial or more vulnerable stages of recovery as it can allow them to get their footing navigating an experience that is completely foreign and overwhelming. However, continuing to avoid that which makes you anxious only perpetuates the anxiety so it is equally important to challenge yourself with exposures once you have a grasp of some basic coping skills.

But how do you know when to push and when to pause?! Good question… to which my disappointing answer is – it all depends on you. Even worse answer – you likely won’t know for sure. (But that’s okay!). It’s all about the learning. Sometimes you’ll take a leap before you’re ready and other times you may find yourself needing a push to move out of comfort or fear. Either way, all you can do is take care of yourself as best you can, learn from your experience, and keep trying to move forward.

Triggers are unavoidable in life and you can certainly minimize your encounters with them but if doing so isn’t sustainable in the long-term you might be find yourself in a strict cycle of avoidance similar to that of your eating disorder.

I’ve assembled a list of a few things you can consider to prepare for when triggers pop-up. Coincidentally I’m now calling these The Four S’s because they all turned out that way… [Disclaimer: this is based entirely on my personal experience and to my knowledge is not any recognized treatment strategy, rather just a few things I thought could help. Feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comments].

I discuss a lot of “diet culture” related triggers in this post but I recognize there are myriad possible things that can trigger anyone. Consequently, these suggestions might be catered more towards day-to-day triggers such as those I personally found difficult to deal with rather than more complex circumstances like interpersonal relationships, school/work life etc. If it’s generalizable, then that’s great! If not… I hope you find your own footing soon (and I’d love to hear about how you did).

1. Self-Awareness

One of the most important things you develop in recovery is self-awareness. With it you are able to better identify what your vulnerabilities are and why. Of course, things that might be triggering to you won’t necessarily be the same things that affect someone else and you can expect that your triggers will also change over time. Necessarily, as I mentioned above, it’s not always easy to know how you’ll respond to anything you encounter. The important thing is that you are reflecting on how to best take care of yourself when you can whether that means preparing to confront certain stressful situations or minimizing your exposure to them altogether.

The list of things that affect you early in your recovery journey may be significantly longer than what bothers you a year or two down the road or even at different times of the year – it all just depends on how you feel. As you build strength in your healing and gather an arsenal of coping tools you may feel more comfortable challenging situations that could be potentially triggering.

Cultivating self-awareness can be crucial for both understanding your

a) Vulnerabilities 

Some circumstances are just going to put you more at risk. Personally, I know these happen to be things like poor sleep, poor hygiene, transition periods or stress at school/work, alcohol, etc. Generally taking care of yourself as best you can is a win, but there are certainly times it will be more important than others, and learning how to identify when these are can help you prepare by investing in your health.

b) Specific triggers

Just like some circumstances can make you more vulnerable, some things will bother you more than others. Maybe you grew up with a parent who never made you feel noticed or heard and consequently you are susceptible to feeling ignored or lonely. Maybe peaches remind you of a bad time in your life and you therefore you hate eating them. Knowing whatever it is can help you plan how to manage your experiences with them in a healthy way.

Not all triggers will be an indication of something greater lying underneath (they may just be a frightening food that you’ve long-avoided) however, occasionally knowing your specific tripping points can alert you to an underlying issue that needs attention. E.g. Does diet-talk bother you? Do you feel like you need to be doing what everyone else is? Why is that?

Another important factor to consider is whether or not the things that trigger you are truly worth re-incorporating back into your life. For example, if you are terrified of peaches (yes I’m going back to this example) and would otherwise like to learn to enjoy fruit again it seems like a logical thing to begin planning for. However, unlike peaches, there may be many circumstances that might associated with distress that are not necessarily worth planning how to manage when you should maybe be considering just steering clear altogether. In my experience these included things like toxic relationships, alcohol, and work I genuinely did not enjoy that made me miserable. Of course, not everything that bothers you calls you to overhaul larger aspects of your life but it is certainly worth thinking about since recovery is generally about building yourself a life worth living. 

2. Strategy

Next, it’s important to consider what you can you do when you encounter a trigger. (If you haven’t prepared a specific exposure) triggers can intrude in your life randomly (maybe it’s Aunt Pat complaining about her weight gain or someone bragging bout their new diet). Whether or not it was a planned encounter, if you’ve given it some thought beforehand, having a safety plan can be very helpful.

To some extent the way you respond to a trigger may depend on what you’ve identified above to be a vulnerability for you. Maybe you’re challenging yourself with a fear food and need some distractions and support? Or you could be learning how to defend your boundaries to those who express inappropriate comments. No matter, its helpful to prepare by re-visiting the coping skills you know can help.

Consider what techniques do you know for managing the immediate emotional reaction. (See some distress tolerance ideas here).

After the fact you may be able to employ some cognitive strategies to rationally evaluate the situation from a place of wise-mind. Thought records can be helpful!

Having someone you can reach out to (professional or otherwise) can be a nice safety-line for when you find yourself needing support.

3. Self-compassion

Much like self-awareness, I believe that self-compassion is a fundamental pillar of recovery. You can use all the coping skills you want but if you’re still beating yourself up for being triggered in the first place it can feel very hard to reach a place of acceptance or growth.

It’s hard to accept that you don’t always know when you will struggle and that you don’t have all the answers, but making space for whatever reactions come up is incredibly important for being able to respond to them constructively.

Give room to whatever you feel. Anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, fear, you name it… they’re all normal understandable reactions to stressful situations. Just because someone else might not get upset about peaches doesn’t mean your reaction is unjustified. Validating your own experience, no matter what it is, gives you an opportunity to step into your unique power and take care of yourself.

Feelings cannot kill you – but your reactions to them can. Your feelings do NOT need a harmful response, they just want to be felt, and as difficult as it is, all you can do is your best. Trying to be with pain and discomfort while keeping yourself safe is a very brave thing.

4. Savour your whys

The fundamental thing I found myself coming back to when I felt triggered was WHY. Why is it so hard? Why does this bother me so much? Why am I doing all this work?

Each trigger in a way, was a chance for me to strengthen my resolve about why I wanted to recover. Of course it didn’t feel that way at the time – it felt absolutely miserable. It never once occurred to me in the moment that “Hey! This is an opportunity to practice some CBT skills!”. BUT, with time (and perseverance) I began to notice that things that would have knocked me down for days only tripped me up for a couple hours.

Your Why’s are the reasons you keep coming back. They’re your tether to a better life – the future you want. The freedom you deserve. They’re almost like a muscle that strengthens each time you work it out and learn to “bounce back”.

“Building resilience” sounds like a wonderful thing but I think it really means “learning to keep trying despite painful failure” and it’s one of the hardest things you can do. However, one of the best.

Remember that your recovery is and always will be about YOU. As hard as it is to face a challenge that seems to contradict everything you’ve worked for, remind yourself that everyone’s journey is their own and just because everyone else is jumping on the New-Diet Bandwagon doesn’t mean you have to as well.

Triggers are not an excuse to give up. They don’t mean you’ll never be able to function in a world overrun with diet-culture or that you can’t handle life unfiltered or full of peaches. They exist just as any virus exists that can infect someone and cause an illness. But much like like an immune system your resilience can be strengthened. Your reaction to your triggers isn’t fixed. It isn’t inevitable – with time you have the capacity to learn to change it and you can. Take it from someone who was convinced it wasn’t possible when I tell you that it is, and it’s something you’ll only discover if you try. Who knows, maybe you’ll surprise yourself when you do.



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