Skip to main content

Mental Health

Helping Myself to Help Myself

Tips for Self-Management of Eating Disorder Symptoms

Tannis Hugill MA, RCC, RDT, ADTR

Reprinted from "Self-Management" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, 1 (18), p. 24

I am a therapist who works with people dealing with disordered eating. A major part of my work with clients is to help them discover ways to manage what seems like a flood of urges to binge, compulsions to purge and fears of getting uncontrollably fat. People suffering from disordered eating often feel out of control, as if their symptoms have taken over their minds, their bodies and their spirits. Part of the difficulty is that sometimes the symptoms are felt to be an enemy, and sometimes a friend. There can be a lot of ambivalence towards giving in to the symptoms, and this contributes to the struggle.

It is important to view eating disorder behaviours, whatever they may be, as simply that: behaviours, or actions that have become an habitual way of dealing with the painful feelings and experiences of life. They are patterns that have become coping tools, serving a protective function. They are also actions that create a cycle of destruction and pain on their own. Those that seek treatment discover this and wish to find a way into true health, peace and loving self-care. In some way, eating disorder symptoms are an effort to do just that, but were developed when the individual just didn’t know any better.

Viewing symptoms in this way can lessen the shame and guilt bound up with the symptoms’ patterns. Instead, they can be seen as signals, alerting us to a need that is not being met. Unmet needs cause difficult feelings. When these are numbed out by symptoms, the needs and feelings remain unconscious. One feels continually unsatisfied, empty, hungry — without knowing why.

Through the strengths of creativity and body awareness, one can gain a friendly relationship to the experience of the self in one’s body. This is vital: our bodies are our homes, where all of our memories and emotions live. They can be creative resources, through which the world is experienced — in pleasure as well as pain. One can practice taking a few deep breaths, and scan the body for information, noticing areas of comfort and discomfort, while being attentive to the feelings, images, thoughts, memories, and associations that are connected with these. When there is a thought or impulse to enact a symptom, one can take a moment to slow the reaction down, to discover what is going on underneath and get some clues as to what is needed. Even if, after a while, the symptom is used, the cycle has been interrupted. This is a victory that proves other choices can be made.

Often, symptoms mask a need to be soothed, and to feel safe. One can create lists of activities that are pleasurable, calming, and easy to do. For some it may be writing in a journal or talking to a friend. For others it might be going for a walk, cleaning the closet, renting a video, petting the cat, taking a bath or having a shower. Meditative activities that quiet the body and the mind, such as a daily sitting or walking meditation may be helpful to lower long felt anxiety which makes all other emotions harder to tolerate.

Maintaining a daily journal of symptom triggers can be useful. List the time, place, activity, people and feelings connected with the triggers on one side — and the chosen, helpful activity used on the other. This serves as a record of what works to manage the symptoms and teaches that the symptoms are not in control.

Recovering from disordered eating is a process of learning that takes time. There are many rewards. Through the process, true self-knowledge can be gained — based on a connection to one’s deep strengths, and trust that eating disorder symptoms are not necessary for survival. When one no longer feels impaired by the wounds underlying the complex of eating disorders, life becomes an unfolding story in which love and acceptance of self can be known, and shared with freedom — at last.

About the author
Tannis is a registered clinical counsellor and registered dance and drama therapist, with a private practice in Vancouver. She is also an artist-in-residence for the Vancouver School Board, where she uses dance and drama to teach healthy body image


Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.