The last post explored the power of eating disordered thoughts and why they exert a strong grip on people trying to recover. It's difficult for people without these illnesses to comprehend how thoughts about not eating can dominate one's mind. The combination of a seemingly inescapable thought process and the inexplicable nature of the mental illness leads to extreme isolation and despair.
I realize that presenting the last post without some guidelines to face the thoughts can appear to be fairly demoralizing.
There are three main ways to manage these thoughts through recovery: personal relationships, honesty and replacement thoughts. Although the concepts are relatively simple, putting them in place daily against automatic thoughts of the eating disorder presents one of the major challenges of recovery.
A person fully engaged in the eating disorder with no intent of recovery finds the eating disorder thoughts largely comforting. The thoughts themselves may be harsh and critical, or even nonsensical, but they present an easy roadmap to follow for a predictable daily life. As long as the thoughts go unchallenged, the person experiences an enormous amount of comfort, often described by many as a best friend or partner.
The existence of a risk-free relationship to an internal set of rules tends to obviate the need for any true relationships. The relationship with a thought process feels very real and predictable while real relationships are unpredictable and scary simply because they involve another person with their own thoughts, feelings and needs.
There are obvious needs an eating disorder cannot fulfill, and even a small step into recovery exposes the incredible loneliness right below the surface of the illness. Opening one's mind to wellness involves re-engaging in relationships. The process of establishing and deepening those connections weakens the eating disorder thoughts each day. One step in facing the thoughts is consciously making the effort to create true connections in the world which highlight the emptiness of the illness.
The thoughts thrive on secrecy and lies both to people in the world but especially to oneself. The fundamental messages of an eating disorder are similar for almost everyone: you don't really need to eat; you have found the comfort you need so who needs other people; people always let you down; the eating disorder is the best thing you'll ever have. These internal thoughts become one's reality. The sense that these messages are lies no longer rings true.
Either talking to other people or in relation to oneself, these lies are the basic philosophy of life. They become the bedrock of how to function day to day and lead to a life full of the illness but little else. Constantly working to question these lies and instead start to believe the reality of the eating disorder as an illness critically weaken the thoughts over time.
By creating parts of one's life separate from the eating disorder, the person in recovery can recognize and identify other daily events and thoughts that compete with the eating disorder thoughts.
The person in recovery starts to be able to identify eating disorder thoughts as part of the illness rather than automatic, true facts. In doing so, it becomes possible to replace the illness thoughts with other realistic thoughts about daily life. This will weaken the thoughts as well and render them much more powerless in time.
There are many steps in recovery that allow a person to face the eating disorder thoughts and continue the road to wellness. It's crucial for family and friends to work hard to understand the power of the psychological part of these illnesses and acknowledge the challenge of getting well. As the person better understands the ways to counter the thoughts, it will be easier to communicate their struggles and need for support. The better one understands this component of recovery, the more hope one can have of getting well.