Can you ever fully recovery from an eating disorder?

by Eat, Health

Can you ever truly recover from an eating disorder?

Full recovery… The elusive goal we all strive for on our recovery journey. It can feel so out of reach, or far away at times. But what exactly does full recovery look like, and how do you know when you’re there?

What is full recovery?

While full recovery may mean different things to different people, in essence it means you no longer experience disordered thoughts or behaviours. The key word here is “thoughts”. While so many people get stuck in quasi recovery, believing themselves to be recovered once they gain the necessary weight, reintroduce fear foods and overcome rules around food and exercise, if your mindset hasn’t recovered, you’ll find yourself falling back into old patterns eventually. Full recovery involves both the body and the mind.

It means you no longer suffer with the “symptoms” of your eating disorder, or engage in any negative or self-destructive behaviours related to food, exercise or body image. You’ve reached a point where you accept your body size and shape, you’ve restored your weight to a healthy place for you, and you’ve regained a healthy perspective and relationship with food, body image and exercise.

Full recovery is the ultimate goal of recovery. The journey there looks different for everyone – some people take months, others many years, but it’s never a linear path. It requires commitment, perseverance and sheer determination.

So is it possible?

The short answer? You bet it is!

Some people believe that, if you’ve ever experienced an eating disorder, you’ll remain in recovery for the rest of your life. But this is absolutely not the case! Even if you’re fully recovered, you may still have moments of self-doubt, days of low self-esteem or poor body image, and even the occasional negative thought.

But if you’re willing and committed to doing the work, you can fully recover from an eating disorder.

How do you do it?

Well that’s not such a short answer. Essentially, you have to show up every single day, and every single meal, for yourself. You have to make choices aligned with your recovery, and the future you want to create, rather than the present you find yourself in. You need to truly believe in why you’re on your recovery journey and what you hope to achieve, and trust that your end goal will make all the challenges along the way worthwhile. You have to reestablish your relationship with yourself, begin to respect and appreciate your body, and redefine your relationships with food and exercise.

Sounds easy enough…right? If you can’t imagine the day you won’t hear that voice in your head condemning your latest food choices, telling you you’re not good enough, claiming you don’t deserve help or love, or you need to “earn” your food and your worth, know that you’re not alone. So many of us can’t imagine a day where we won’t be bombarded by these critical, self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, or spend our days consumed by thoughts around food and exercise. But it IS possible! It just requires effort, time and work.

Factors influencing your ability to fully recover

Whether you can reach the point of full recovery, or you get “stuck” in quasi recovery depends on the following factors:

1. Your ability to come to terms with weight gain

While many people convince themselves they can recover without needing to gain “too much” weight, or they can gain the weight in recovery and then shed it again later, this is not an attitude aligned with full recovery. Yes, it’s one of the hardest parts of recovery, but gaining weight is critical if you want your body to once again function at its best. Part of recovery is recognising your worth isn’t dependent on your body shape or size, and learning to appreciate your body for the many things it can do instead of criticising every imperfection you have. The more readily you can accept the need for your body to change, in order to be “healthy” again, the more quickly you can move towards full recovery.

2. Your “why”

Is your why strong enough to fuel you through the lows on your recovery journey? While you’ll never feel fully ready to recover, if you have a strong reason to commit to the process, you’re more able to pick yourself back up when you fall, and continue showing up for yourself and pushing past the fear and discomfort threatening to hold you back.

3. Your actions

You need to make decisions aligned with recovery in every aspect of your life if you want to fully recover. Remove diet culture exposure from your life however you can – by curating your Instagram feed, avoiding the comparison trap, and removing all the diet recipe books from your house. Set boundaries with loved ones if they try to discuss your body or changes you’re experiencing. Recognise your triggers, or things that cause you to feel self-critical, and remove them from your life.

4. Whether you feel supported

Research shows that people with supportive, encouraging relationships are more able to fully recover from eating disorders. Similarly, seeking support from health professionals or communities of like-minded women like Recovery Club can provide the motivation, support and resources you need to reach full recovery. The ability to reach out and ask for help is such a turning point, and can be the distinguishing factor allowing you to reach full recovery. 

5. Finding alternative coping mechanisms

So often, eating disorders begin as a way to cope or manage emotions, trauma or other life experiences. In order to reach full recovery, it’s extremely helpful to develop alternative ways of coping with difficult emotions, circumstances or experiences in a healthy, positive way. Whether this looks like journaling, meditation, or regular sessions with a psychologist, there are endless other ways to manage difficult things in life. This allows you to release your reliance on eating disorder behaviours or thoughts as your coping mechanisms, and learn to experience all emotions without fear.

So how do I know when I’m fully recovered?

There may not be a moment where you suddenly realise “I’m fully recovered!” It’s a long process, but over time you’ll feel your energy levels increasing, your hunger cues returning, even a new enthusiasm for life. You’ll realise you feel grateful where you once felt critical and isolated, you recognise your worth, and you no longer define yourself by your body or your weight.

Instead of falling victim to the voice in your head, it’s so quiet now you’re rarely even aware of it. Every time you begin a negative thought, you’ve combatted it with something positive before you’ve finished your sentence.

You’ll feel more confident. You’ll know you have unconditional permission to eat (and enjoy) all foods, whenever you want! You’ll reconnect with loved ones, and make plans to enjoy a meal together without thinking twice about it. You’ll go back for seconds, and thirds, without feeling guilty. You’ll no longer invent and adhere to food rules.

You’ll rediscover your interests and passions, now you have so much more mental space, capacity and time from being free of the constant thoughts about food and exercise. You’ll reconnect with yourself, and learn to practise compassion and kindness towards yourself, instead of bullying yourself. You’ll feel free, and able to be present with your loved ones.

You may experience occasional negative thoughts, sure, but they no longer have a hold over you or control you. You may still want to go to the gym, but you now move for joy and freedom, rather than punishment. You may avoid some foods, but it’s because you genuinely dislike them – not because you’ve convinced yourself you don’t enjoy them.

Importantly, you won’t fear relapsing into those old patterns and behaviours. You’ll know you’re there, you’ve done the time and the work. You’ve developed healthy coping mechanisms and created lasting behavioural change. You’re no longer controlled by your thoughts, rules, and that voice in your head – now YOU control THEM!

There’s an entire world and an entire YOU beyond your eating disorder. Full recovery is absolutely possible if you’re willing to work for it, so commit today! Seek out support, you’re never expected to go it alone!

If you’re in need of a motivating team to cheer you on and support you every step of the way, join us in Recovery Club today! Find validation, understanding and empathy as we all navigate the path to full recovery together.

Join Our Community

If you’re looking for a support team to provide you with all the encouragement, strategies and resources you need along every step of your recovery journey, join us in Recovery Club today! You’ll be welcomed into the most compassionate, supportive group of recovery warriors, to celebrate your wins and overcome your challenges!

Sarah King

Sarah King

Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.

Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.