Eating Disorder Recovery: Learning When To Seek Help

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC

Our relationship with food is a complex one. For some, eating is simply a way to receive the nutrition they need to lead a happier and healthier lifestyle. For others, however, food can be seen in a negative light or used as a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions. Those in the latter category may often struggle with the role that food plays in their life, dealing with eating disorders and co-occurring disorders that can make life more difficult. What you need to know, however, is that your eating disorder doesn’t have to control you. With the right help, you can mend your relationship with food as well as manage the underlying symptoms of your disorder.

If you believe that you have an eating disorder and are wondering how you can begin your recovery journey, here is an in-depth guide on eating disorders and what your next step may be.

Cultivating Awareness Around Your Eating Disorder

The first step in the eating disorder recovery process is developing an awareness of the fact that you have an eating disorder. That said, there are many different types of eating disorders out there. If you don’t know what symptoms to look for, you may not believe that you are having trouble with an eating disorder. What do eating disorders look like? Let’s take a look at a few of the most common eating disorders that you could be struggling with.

Anorexia Nervosa

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Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an extreme obsession with weight loss, which will cause those dealing with the disorder to engage in dangerous behaviors designed to keep their weight down. Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Excessive fear of weight gain or fear of “being fat.”
  • Limiting the number of calories eaten in a day, often eating very little
  • Exercising obsessively
  • Vomiting or using laxatives to maintain an ideal weight
  • For women, a lack of periods.
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • A loss of calcium that affects bone strength
  • Dry, yellow skin
  • Anemia and muscle loss
  • Constipation
  • Low body temperature
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Low blood pressure, heart rate, and slowed breathing

Bulimia Nervosa

Although those with bulimia will share some symptoms seen in anorexia nervosa, the difference between the two is that those with bulimia nervosa will not always be underweight. Instead, the weight of an individual may vary, ranging between underweight and overweight. However, this eating disorder can impact individuals just the same. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Binging on large amounts of food, then, throwing up or using a laxative to get rid of the calories that they consumed
  • Chronic sore throat and inflammation
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Puffy cheeks and face
  • Tooth decay and loss
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disorder
  • Intestinal problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Dehydration

Binge Eating Disorder

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While those with bulimia nervosa will try to get rid of the food they have binged, those with binge eating disorder will repeatedly binge without attempting to get rid of the food. This type of eating disorder can often result in multiple health problems caused by extreme weight gains, such as diabetes and hypertension. Symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating rapidly, often more than you normally would
  • Eating large amounts of food until physical discomfort is caused.
  • Eating large quantities of food despite not feeling hungry.
  • Hiding your eating habits out of shame and embarrassment
  • Feeling bad after engaging in binge-eating behavior

Along with these symptoms, binge eating disorder must meet certain conditions. Binge eating disorder can only be diagnosed if the affected person engages in frequent binge eating behavior for at least one day a week for three months. They must also experience at least three of the above symptoms and feel out of control of their eating habits.

While there may be other eating disorders, these are the three main ones that could be at the heart of what you may be experiencing at the moment. However, recognizing one of your symptoms is only one step of the recovery process. What else should you be doing when you are looking to start recovery from an eating disorder?

Eating Disorder Recovery: Recovery Process 

The National Eating Disorders Association breaks down the recovery stages from an eating disorder into five separate sections. These include:

  1. The Precontemplation Stage: Individuals in the pre-contemplation stage have yet to accept that they have an eating disorder. Even if they have family and friends pointing out their behavior and symptoms, they will often respond by remaining in denial about their eating disorder or the need to seek recovery. This stage can often be one of the most difficult as an individual first needs to acknowledge their disorder before they can begin treating it.
  2. The Contemplation Stage: At this stage in the process, the individual will begin accepting that they have an issue and may begin working towards figuring out how they can treat it. During the contemplation stage, people can still be very anxious about seeking recovery. They must have plenty of support to help them as they attempt to move forward.
  3. The Preparation Stage: Once someone has accepted their problem, they will begin finding the resources necessary to move past it. This can include looking for the right counseling resources, learning the proper coping mechanisms to help them deal with symptoms, and creating a plan of action that will allow them to move forward with fewer problems.
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  1. The Action Stage: Armed with the right knowledge and tools, individuals can begin taking action to heal from their eating disorder and manage their symptoms. They will have developed a solid plan with the assistance of a therapist and nutritionist and can begin working with all of the tools and processes that they have learned. Recovery can be difficult, but it will be easier with all of the support at this stage.
  2. The Maintenance Stage: At this point in time, those who have an eating disorder will have been working on their plan for at least six months. They have learned how to properly implement all of the tools they have been given and start to become more successful on their own. They will still need support as they navigate this new life. Additionally, those in recovery should be made aware that relapse is always a possibility. If you do end up engaging in old habits, remember that it doesn’t make you any less worthy of recovery or change. This just means that you are human. You can always start on your path to recovery, no matter what has happened.
  3. There is also a sixth stage which they call the termination and relapse prevention stage. Some people may believe that they are no longer at risk of relapsing and handling their eating disorder. While this may be true, it is important that they fully understand all components of their treatment plan and demonstrate that they can manage their eating disorder independently. Remember, it is okay to reach out for help if there is a fear or risk of relapsing.

Eating disorders may be accompanied by other coexisting mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. When you enter treatment, you may also develop a treatment plan as well as coping mechanisms to deal with these disorders. This treatment plan will often consist of therapy; in some cases, medication to help you better treat and manage the symptoms of a mood disorder. If your eating disorder has caused any major health problems, you may need to be hospitalized to help you recover from them before you can move forward with your treatment.

For anyone at any stage of recovery, therapy can be a helpful resource. Besides offering support when you may be feeling low or bad about your body, therapy can help you continue learning valuable coping mechanisms that can help you navigate the hardships you are facing. Most everyone has counseling centers near them, where they can seek out the help of a therapist who knows how to treat their specific conditions. However, if you do not have access to these resources, there are alternatives. If you can’t find the help that you need, consider using an online resource like BetterHelp.

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BetterHelp is an online counseling platform designed to make counseling more affordable and accessible to everyone. Whether you’re having trouble finding the right therapist, don’t have the time in the day to make the trip, or are looking for a simpler way to begin, BetterHelp can connect you with a certified counselor who is right for you. As long as you need counseling and the ability to use BetterHelp, you are ready to begin.

Eating disorders can have an impact on both mental and physical health. The longer that they remain unchecked and untreated, the more potential damage they can do. If you believe that you are dealing with an eating disorder and want to start working towards the recovery process, use the information provided above to learn more about which eating disorder you are dealing with and how you can begin healing. Although recovery can be difficult, it is something that can be possible for everyone. Remember, if you are looking to make changes in your relationship with food, you can achieve it.


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