Transitions are challenging for those with eating disorders and need to be respected as such. Examples of transitions are:
- Going from one job to the next
- Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood
- Transitioning from being enrolled in one school to another
- Season changes – Summer to fall, spring to summer, etc
- Going from being in a relationship to being single, or the other way around
- Graduating from college and working on a post-college plan
- Going from being employed to being unemployed
- Going from living in one type of body to another
- Experiencing the sickness and death of a loved one
There are numerous examples of transitions. Some are less anxiety provoking but others can evoke high levels of anxiety, insecurity, sadness and fear. When an individual with an eating disorder faces a transition, leaving the familiar and moving toward the unknown, they often have increased urges to use eating disordered behaviors as a way to feel “safe”, distracted, numb, or less anxious and fearful. This occurs even when the familiar situation is not a positive one. For example, if someone is transitioning from an unhealthy relationship to being single, and the change is for the better, it is still unfamiliar and will evoke uncomfortable feelings.
If you have an eating disorder and are in the midst of a transition, or if you are the loved one of someone with an eating disorder who is facing a transition, the first thing you need to understand is that increased negative feelings and urges to use eating disordered behaviors during this time are normal. Individuals with eating disorders like to feel in control and “comfortable”, and there are less feelings of control and comfort during transitions.
If you have an eating disorder, don’t set your recovery back by using eating disordered behaviors to feel better. Use the transition to practice your skills of feelings expression and communication. If you use eating disordered behaviors to feel better, the transition will still be a part of your life and you will be making it much worse by not facing your feelings associated with it, communicating your feelings and needs, and dealing with the necessary steps to help you authentically deal with the transition and feel stronger when it is over. If you were to look at your transition objectively (not emotionally), how do you want to feel when it is over? Do you want to feel strong, empowered, and proud of yourself, or do you want to feel worse physically and psychologically than you did before it started?
Many of my clients this time of year have finished school and are in the beginning of their summer vacation. Some of them are going to college in the fall. They have just left the familiar surroundings of friends they have spent years with, teachers and coaches they knew what to expect from, and a variety of other expectations they knew how to navigate through. As time gets closer to starting a new school, the anxiety of new friends, classes, and moving away from home may escalate. If they want to have a successful transition to college, they have to stay healthy over the summer and strengthen their recovery skills so that in the fall, they are as prepared as they can be to navigate the new circumstances they will encounter.
A client I met with this week is transitioning from a residential treatment center to a lower level of care closer to home. Stepping down from the intensity of treatment in a residential facility to having only a few one hour appointments a week can cause heightened feelings of uncertainty as well as additional responsibility. This is a transition that often results in lapses in recovery if it isn’t well planned and structured.
Two of my clients are pregnant and not only working through the transitions that they are experiencing with their bodies but anticipating the transitions that will occur after the baby is born – additional body transitions, changes in family life, responsibilities etc. This transition brings up feelings of fear and inadequacy, body image issues, and others. Pregnancy is an especially important time to work through the associated transition issues in a healthy, recovery-focused way so as not to harm the pregnancy itself.
Another client experienced a death in her family. She experienced the transition associated with the onset of the sickness and rapid deterioration of the family member’s health, and then his subsequent death. Her situation is an especially strong example of successfully experiencing transition because she was able to verbalize how challenging it was to abstain from using eating disordered behaviors to “help her” through the difficult time she faced and continues to face. She expressed how in the past, when faced with such uncertainty and then ultimately a grave loss, she would have engaged in eating disordered behaviors from the time she woke up until she went to bed, day after day, week after week, month after month, with the sole intention of numbing out all feelings. During this recent extraordinarily difficult circumstance, she was able to express her pain genuinely, and she was honest in talking with her family and friends about what she was going through. She is currently continuing to experience this transition in a healthy way, even though it is terribly painful.
The healthy way to experience a transition in your life is to face and discuss your fears and anxieties with loved ones. Share your thoughts with family and friends who may also be experiencing the same feelings. Don’t try to deal with it all alone. There is nothing worse than keeping thoughts and worries to yourself because if you do, your eating disorder voice will blow everything out of proportion and make everything seem destined to appear unmanageable, and destined to fail. Try not to let your eating disordered voice create negative or distorted scenarios about the future. Eating disordered voices are prone to creating fearful “worst case scenarios” to ignite worry and anxiety. Try not to focus on things you can’t control. Focus on the things you can control. Stay grounded and focus on what’s real, not what isn’t. Remember that every transition you get through in a healthy way will make you stronger and prepare you for future transitions. Life is full of transitions. They present themselves often, sometimes unpredictably. You can’t escape them, but you can use them as times to strengthen your recovery and your life as a whole.
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