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How I Cope with My Eating Disorder Triggers and Behaviors in New Places with New Foods

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A girl with both of her hands tied to the table with measuring tape on a plate with a fork to the left of her, and a knife to the right of her.
Source: Westend61 | Getty Images

Eating Disorders are extremely complex and persist based on sets of rules, routines, and compulsive behaviors that make the all-consuming disease a top priority.

Because people with eating disorders (ED) are forced to operate through these food rituals in order to maintain control and feel safe, starting over in a new place with new foods can exacerbate ED thoughts and compulsions. For me, transitions like moving to college and going abroad forced me to find coping mechanisms to put my health, not my ED, first. 

I have had an eating disorder since I was 13 years old, and I am now 20. 

The most crippling thing about an eating disorder is that no matter how your weight fluctuates up and down, or how your emotions and relationships evolve, your disease will always be a part of you. 

In treatment, we gave our disorders names to try and conceptualize the intimacies and attachments of a relationship with an ED. My Anorexia, fondly referred to as Anna, is a part of me.

However the difference between my relationship with my ED when I was 13 versus now, is that I now have the tools in recovery to keep my thoughts and behaviors in check. 

When I was 13, I physically could not eat a bite of pasta no matter how much my non-ED brain wanted to. Now, if I want a bite of pasta and have those same self-deprecating, restrictive thoughts, I have the autonomy and upper hand to choose to raise my fork to my mouth against my ED’s wishes. I now make choices in spite of my old friend, Anna. 

It is now important to recognize when access to those coping mechanisms and tools becomes threatened, as I have recently started a new chapter of my life studying abroad. When I was packing for my four month stay in Denmark, I couldn’t help but reflect on the challenges 

I faced making a similar complete overhaul of my life when I moved from home to the University of Michigan. Leaving for college felt different than leaving for abroad, as back then I had been chained to my recovery by my parents’ watchful eyes. 

When I left for college, I imagined a new world of opportunities to restrict and give in to Anna without my parents or childhood friends noticing.

When I got to school and all of my safe foods from home had been replaced with confusing dining halls and new foods, I immediately reacted by restricting once again. Everything I had learned in recovery flew out the window. 

Being in a completely new place meant that the triggers and behaviors I had kept at bay with safe foods and routines at home were now reopened wounds, raw, exposed, and I had no idea where a new set of bandages would be. 

Instead of being able to establish new guidelines and coping strategies at Michigan, my disease overpowered me once again.
Source: Tessa K | WeHeartIt

Instead of being able to establish new guidelines and coping mechanisms at Michigan, my disease overpowered me once again. 

Seven years later, I’ve more than found a routine, exercise regimen, and comfortable eating resources at Michigan and am the healthiest I’ve ever been. The coping strategies I re-found and the new tools I learned in my relapse are ones that I am taking with me abroad. 

Ways to Cope with Eating Disorders

Firstly, finding a non-triggering or ED behavior-based activity that would also give me a support network is essential. I realized that my long distance running had become Anna’s primary crutch, the perfect mechanism to control me once again through numbers.

So, I gave up the gym entirely and found yoga as a new outlet. I established a community at the studio that I knew would be looking out for me, and then did yoga teacher training to give myself a set exercise and study routine that would be supplemented by emotional support and plenty of self-reflection.

For me, finding this nurturing outlet full of people to help me grow has been instrumental in my recovery. Within my first couple weeks in Denmark, I tried four different yoga studios and found two that I know I can always go to. In taking this practice abroad, I’m able to find some normalcy to keep me grounded.

Another coping strategy that I’ve learned to bring with me wherever I go is knowing to research and plan ahead. As soon as I received my housing assignment in Copenhagen, I immediately looked up what kinds of foods and resources would be in my area.

I scouted just a few restaurants and eateries that would have food I’m comfortable with, packed a box of my favorite granola bars and snacks, and reached out to my assigned roommate to let her know I’d need support. 

And, though I’ve planned ahead, I’ve also learned that in the face of new foods I must at least try to take on the challenge of being uncomfortable and have safe food to fall back on instead of reverting to restrictive behaviors.

 I try to make choices in spite of what my eating disorder wants, but recognize how my day to day limitations will affect these choices.
Source: Cali Legitness | flickr

 A difficult part of navigating recovery is that it isn’t as easy as just telling yourself to eat.

 I knew I wouldn’t arrive in Denmark, go to a new restaurant with foreign foods, and immediately be able to pick up a fork and dig in. Instead of restricting like I did as a Freshman at UofM, I went into this new chapter prepared to at least try new foods.

If that meant triggering ED thoughts and feeling compulsions creeping back in, I knew that I had safe food at home, and a list of places to get safe food instead of just not eating altogether. 

Recovery is a give and take: sometimes I challenge myself and win, and other times it’s too much and I make sure I have a plan B to fall back on. 

Lastly, over time I’ve worked hard to weigh the pros and cons of these challenges and be honest with myself on where I’m at in my recovery. I try to make choices in spite of what my eating disorder wants, but recognize how my day to day limitations will affect these choices.

When I left for college, I could only listen to the voice in my head which gave me two options: eat the short list of safe foods I had established at home, or starve. Now, living in Copenhagen, I can challenge that voice and try all the new foods I can’t try anywhere else, while also knowing my recovery is safe.

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