Healthier coping strategies to replace your disordered behaviours
Eating disorders, and disordered eating and exercise behaviours, often arise out of need. They can make us feel safe, and even keep us alive, during times when we need some kind of coping strategy to help us navigate difficult emotions or circumstances in our lives. But there comes a time when these patterns no longer serve us, and instead of keeping us safe, they keep us “stuck” in negative, damaging behaviours. They keep us isolated, limit our enjoyment of life, and prevent us reaching our full potential. And this means that they’re no longer a positive coping strategy.
When you commit to recovery, you recognise the need for new, healthy, more positive coping mechanisms to rely upon when you’re struggling with emotions or experiences. While the options for coping strategies are endless, there are a few tried and tested tools we recommend turning to to help you sit in and overcome challenging times, and emerge on the other side as a stronger, happier version of yourself.
Then, whenever you feel the pull to revert to disordered patterns, you can turn to one of these coping strategies instead, with the confidence and knowledge they will allow you to sit in your emotions until they pass. You’re stronger than you realise – you can get through difficult times. And while you do, it’s great to have an arsenal of healthy coping strategies at your fingertips to help you do so.
Do something nice for yourself.
Let’s resist the idea of labelling this strategy as “self-care”, since for many people that conjures up ideas of face masks, manicures and days at the spa. Instead, next time you’re feeling calm and grounded, make a list of nice gestures or activities you’d encourage a friend to do when they’re feeling down, or even kind, thoughtful things you’d do for a friend in need. These could be as simple as watching your favourite movie, reading a book that commands your entire attention, or writing a letter to yourself (from the perspective of a “friend”) expressing gratitude and acknowledgement of the person you are.
Now you’ve got your list, whenever you feel in need of some centring, support or self-love, choose something you’ve written down, and make time to do one (or more) of these activities. Commit to being fully present and focused on whatever activity you choose, and giving yourself permission to take time to yourself. In that moment, nothing else exists or matters. The simple act of being present can help relieve anxiety and stress around the future or the past, and can release worries you may be experiencing in moments of pressure or difficulty.
Tune into yourself, for yourself, and allow everything else to fade into the background.
Mindful movement does not look like hitting the gym to lift the heaviest weights you can get your hands on, or getting as sweaty as possible on the treadmill. Instead, it involves really connecting to your body, and listening to what it needs. It might be crying out for some time in nature, or a gentle walk along the beach to help you feel grounded and at peace. In fact, spending time in nature is an excellent coping strategy in and of itself, allowing you to feel calmer and more centred away from the hustle and overwhelm of daily life.
Or, maybe your body needs some stretching or yoga to release tension and stress. Or perhaps it needs rest and recovery. Whatever movement (or lack thereof) your body is asking for, indulge it. Bring your awareness out of your mind and into your body, really engaging your mind-muscle connection to simply move in tune with your body, and release anything that isn’t serving you as you do so.
Even connecting with your body can help you pass difficult emotions, allowing you to feel cleansed and refreshed.
Mindfulness can look a whole lot of different ways. You could try:
- Journaling. Write out all the thoughts and emotions flowing through your mind, without judgement. Journaling can help you observe your own thought patterns from a distance, in order to identify and understand what’s really going on for you, or what’s causing you worry or stress in the moment. And of course, once you understand what’s happening, you can work through it, and allow it to pass without resorting to negative patterns you’ve relied on in the past.
- Meditation or breathwork: Listening to a guided meditation or using mantra meditation or breathwork can be incredibly calming and helpful when you’re navigating difficult emotions. Meditation requires non-attachment to your thoughts, so while you may still experience thoughts and feelings during your practice, you simply notice them appear, and then allow them to pass. This also helps you release any challenging feelings you’re experiencing, so you can cope in times of difficulty or stress without reverting to disordered behaviours.
- Gratitude. A gratitude practice is another really impactful coping strategy. When you’re in a place of gratitude, you can no longer be experiencing anxiety to the same degree. So next time you feel overwhelmed, distraught, or you notice the desire to engage in disordered behaviours, pause and take a moment to think of three things you’re grateful for, in that very moment. Name them, sit with them, and allow the challenging feelings to pass on.
Spend some time intentionally relaxing your body, to allow negative or difficult emotions to leave your body at the same time. You might choose to do a muscle relaxation exercise or meditation, slowly working your way down your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, pausing at each body part to unclench, unwind and physically relax any tension. Given we hold a lot of tension and emotion in our bodies, this can be a really effective coping strategy in times of stress or overwhelm.
You might also opt to cuddle a pet or a loved one – after all, hugging releases oxytocin or the “love hormone”, responsible for improving and uplifting mood. Or maybe you choose to put on your favourite instrumental soundtrack or some calming music and lie there with your eyes closed, allowing the sounds to wash over you.
Whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed, and allows any tension to drain from your body, set aside some time and engage in your relaxation practice. Let the emotions pass from your body in the knowledge that you have the tools and the strength to cope with anything that comes your way. You will navigate and overcome any obstacles, because you are resilient and strong.
Ask for support.
Find someone who makes you feel safe and heard, be it a loved one or a professional support team, and ask them if they have space to listen and support you at this time. Share with them how you’re feeling, what you’re struggling with, and what you need. Even articulating your emotions and thoughts aloud can help you make sense of them, process them and then let them pass.
And like they say, a problem shared is a problem halved! Whether you’re hoping your support person can help you solve a problem, or simply listen to you and empathise, sharing means you’re reminded you’re not alone, and you can cope with anything difficult that comes your way – without needing those disordered patterns to help you get through it!
Apply logic and problem solving.
Sometimes, all it takes is pausing and reflecting… Consider the scenario or events causing you stress, anxiety, worry or fear. Are you dramatising or exaggerating the situation? Are you assuming the worst-case scenario before it’s even happened? What’s the worst that can happen, and how can you mitigate it? Can you prepare a strategy or plan to help you reduce the risk, or respond accordingly?
Asking yourself logical, realistic questions can help you put things into perspective, and remind you that the world isn’t crashing and burning around you. Difficult things happen, but you can always find a way through or around them. If it helps you, plan ahead and find comfort in knowing that you have a strategy for anything that comes your way!
Name your emotions and allow them to pass.
So much of the time, disordered patterns arise from a desire to “squash” or run away from difficult emotions. These “negative feelings” can seem so overwhelming or scary, many of us resort to compulsions or rituals to escape dealing with them altogether, presenting ourselves with the illusion that we are in control of ourselves and our lives – when in reality, it’s the exact opposite.
But by recognising and naming your emotions, you take away their power and hold over you. The truth is, no emotion is “negative”. Emotions are beyond your control, and they’re simply a message from your brain as to how you feel about or towards something… What’s so scary about your brain communicating with you? Nothing!
If you realise and accept that there’s no such thing as a “negative” emotion, you give yourself permission to notice and sit in any feelings that may arise – difficult or not. When you learn to acknowledge whatever is showing up for you, and you begin to sit in that emotion with the knowledge and confidence that you can get through it and it will pass, suddenly it’s not scary or overwhelming. It just is.
So practise noticing, naming, and sitting with emotions – even in the difficult times. And when you do, you’ll notice they pass. You’re strong enough to wait them out.
Be curious, eager to learn more about yourself and how you feel. And in doing so, you’ll realise you’re capable of coping with anything – even without those disordered behaviours you’ve relied on in the past!
Need some support working through difficult emotions, and overcoming disordered patterns and behaviours to find food freedom and full recovery? Our 1:1 coaching program equips you with all the personalised strategies, tools and support you need to make it happen! Sign up today.
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Sarah King is an Exercise Physiologist and Health Coach specialising in helping women reconnect with their bodies and improve their relationship with food and exercise.
Through her 1:1 Health Coaching Sessions clients learn to nourish their bodies without guilt, move for joy, improve body image and self worth, plus recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and get their period pack if it’s gone missing.
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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.