National Eating Disorders Association

3 Tips for Coping with Triggers in Eating Disorder Recovery

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW

We live in a society where we are inundated with messages that promote diet-culture, the “thin ideal” of female beauty, and serve to glamorize excessive exercise. For individuals who are struggling with an eating disorder, recovering within a cultural climate of unhealthy attitudes towards food and exercise can be tough. However, full recovery and freedom from the food and exercise obsession is entirely possible.

A trigger in this context is defined as, “something that sets off cravings in recovering individuals.” It is normal to feel triggered when you are in recovery, however what matters is the way in which you respond to these thoughts and feelings. The following are three tips that may help you to cope with triggers in your recovery from an eating disorder. 

1. Develop an awareness of your triggers.

The first step in changing any behavior is beginning to cultivate an awareness of it. It may be helpful to focus on being mindfully aware of what your personal triggers are. No two people are the same, and everyone has different things that may trigger their “eating disorder voice” to grow louder. 

You could start by paying attention to what triggers you throughout the week and then write it down in a list.  Next to each item, you could write the thoughts and feelings that came up for you in response to the trigger. To take it one step further would be to challenge yourself to write a thought from your “healthy self” underneath each thought from your “eating disorder voice.” This could help you to begin to externalize and separate your “eating disorder self” from your “healthy self.” Separating your “unhealthy thoughts” vs. “healthy thoughts” is one technique that I have found to be helpful for the clients that I work with. 

2. Reach out to your support network.

When you are feeling triggered, this is an excellent time to reach out to someone in your support network. No one should have to battle his or her eating disorder alone. Reaching out to someone when you are feeling especially vulnerable could help to reduce some of the shame and isolation that you might feel. Making an appointment with your therapist or nutritionist or talking to a friend, family member, significant other, or mentor, could be incredibly helpful when you are feeling triggered. 

It could also be helpful to tell the person that you choose reach out to, what it is that you need from them in this moment. As I often tell clients, people cannot read your mind and may not know how you are feeling. Therefore, it can be beneficial to share with this person what they can do to support you, whether it’s simply to listen to you, engage in a fun activity to distract you, or help you to come up with an alternative coping skill.

3. Engage in a self-care activity.

Often when people are feeling triggered they “beat themselves up” for what they are experiencing. However, this is when it is especially critical that you practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is when you treat yourself with the same kindness and care that you would extend to a good friend. 

Think about the ways in which you can be kind to yourself today, rather than resorting to an unhealthy coping behavior. Some suggestions for self-care include the following: taking a bubble bath, enjoying a cup of tea, reading an engaging book, watching a funny movie, listening to a guided meditation online, sitting outside on a sunny day, journaling, making a gratitude list, and anything else that helps you to feel relaxed. It takes strength, courage, and commitment to work towards recovery from your eating disorder. You deserve to take the time to honor yourself for all of the hard work that you are doing.

Finally, in your recovery journey, it is likely that you will experience triggers that may cause you to have unpleasant thoughts and feelings. However, just because you think something, does not mean that it is true. Accept that negative thoughts and painful feelings are normal parts of the recovery process-and the human experience. Further, the less that you allow your negative thoughts to control your behavior, the quieter they will ultimately become. Remind yourself of the reasons why you are choosing recovery, and then work to choose healthy behaviors that align with this goal 

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, know that it is truly a sign of strength to seek help. No one should have to suffer in silence. No matter what your mind may be telling you, know that full recovery is possible. Further, you are not to blame for having an eating disorder. Developing an eating disorder is not a choice, but it is never too late to choose recovery. 


About the Author: Jennifer Rollin is a licensed mental health therapist who works with adolescents. Jennifer enjoys being active outside, practicing yoga, reading, and watching way too many TED talks. Jennifer is passionate about living a balanced lifestyle and the health at every size movement.