Can Coping Mechanisms Help Recovery from Eating Disorders?

Can Coping Mechanisms Help Recovery from Eating Disorders?

Poor body image is a common trigger for eating disorders

Eating disorders are very complex in nature, and often misunderstood. Those who suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder may find themselves socially isolated or even openly mocked. For this reason, many mistakenly believe positive thinking will be enough to overcome such an eating disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Baseline Understanding of the Primary Eating Disorders

When an individual has an eating disorder, it means he has an unhealthy type of interaction or relationship with food, to the degree his life is negatively impacted in one or more ways. Generally, this person will view himself as physically unappealing, and this is more often than not based on unrealistic expectations. Three eating disorder are recognized by the DSM-V:

  • Anorexia nervosa – An individual with this disorder has an intense fear of gaining weight. As a result of this fear, she may restrict her calories to an unhealthy level, frequently skip meals, or only eat specific foods.
  • Bulimia nervosa – A bulimic may also be afraid of gaining weight, but his response to this fear is very different. He will eat enormous amounts of food in a very short period of time, and then eliminate the calories in an equally rapid way. Commonly known as “binging and purging,” the rapid calorie removal may take the form of vomiting, the use of diuretics or laxatives, or even abnormally aggressive exercise.
  • Binge eating disorder – An individual with this disorder eats large quantities of food, to the point of becoming ill, and does not seem to have the ability to stop eating.

Eating disorders are similar to other types of compulsive or addictive behaviors in that the individual feels unable to stop the destructive behavior even though it is causing negative consequences in her life.

The Roots of Eating Disorders

There is no single cause for eating disorders, but rather each is a combination of genetics, social expectations, and psychological issues. Researchers have discovered, for example, that genetics predisposes certain individuals toward eating disorders, and this genetic predisposition is then activated by environmental factors.

While no clear profile for individuals with eating disorders has emerged, it does appear there are certain recurring themes. It is common to find an individual with an eating disorder to also have one or more of the following:

  • A fear of growing up
  • Perfectionism
  • An overdeveloped need to control
  • Difficult regulating moods
  • Sexual abuse
  • A dysfunctional family upbringing

None of these descriptors are meant to be judgmental. On the contrary, each instead emphasizes the various factors that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Emerging Research Uncovers Surprising Treatment Correlations

A 2013 study found some surprising correlations between eating disorders and the efficacy of treatment options. Positive correlations were found between eating disorders and each of the following:

  • Substance use
  • Substitute gratification
  • Avoidance
  • Aggression
  • Drug use

Additionally, significant negative correlations were found between eating disorders and relaxation, planning, using instrumental support, acceptance as well as venting. Further analysis uncovered a startling fact: eating disorders were positively associated with coping strategies focused on substance use and religion, and negatively associated with using emotional support, positive self-instructions and positive reframing.

In other words, according to this research, the most effective interventions will be those focused on changing inappropriate coping mechanisms.

Developing Healthier Coping Mechanisms

If the most effective interventions are focused on developing better coping mechanisms, this means an individual must identify his triggers – what causes him to make poor choices with his eating. While it differs for each person, 10 triggers have been identified as the most common:

  1. Poor body image
  2. Social eating situations, such as Thanksgiving dinner
  3. Resisting the urge to binge
  4. Overcoming shame after a binge
  5. Poor self-esteem
  6. Refusing to believe healthy eating will ever happen
  7. Knowing how to reward oneself for accomplishments
  8. Social isolation
  9. Tension or anxiety
  10. An inability to verbally defend oneself against attacks

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, an important step for you is to consider which of these triggers apply to you. From there, you can begin to develop alternative coping mechanisms instead of eating. These strategies could range from planning to have a friend fill your plate at problem meals to developing steady daily meal times.

Further Help for Eating Disorders

If you don’t carefully and actively monitor your internal approaches to different circumstances, it might seem that conquering your eating disorder will never happen. But the truth is that overcoming unhealthy choices in life takes time and practice. You may fall back into poor habits, but you do not have to stay in a place of failure. Understanding the value of employing a strong support system, and leaning on that support through your ups and downs, can be the difference between a successful recovery and not being able to overcome your eating disorder.

The bottom line is this: returning to your disorder is always a risk, and one you must remain vigilant against in every way.

The cost of returning to your eating disorder is too high. If this is where you are right now, the most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. We can help you. We can answer your questions. The admission counselors at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can help you learn more about eating disorders, addiction, and other mental health concerns. They can help you find your way.