Eating disorders often arise during transitional phases. This is because experiencing transitions – or change – can bring about challenges or dilemmas that have the potential to overwhelm us and our ability to cope.
Some examples of transitional phases include: moving home, schools, going away to university, transitioning between mental health services or even experiencing menopause. All of these experiences place a strain on the individual as they adjust to new lifestyles and routines.
For those who struggle with these experiences, eating disorders develop as a means of coping in uncertain environments. They “help” us to feel a degree of certainty whilst the rest of the world would otherwise feel uncertain and unsafe.
Our Senior Occupational Therapist, Kendra, describes transitions as changes that occur when we move out of a comfort zone:
“I would consider transitions as changes that occur when we move out of a comfort zone – whether it be a physical place or an emotional space. For someone in recovery this could look physically like changing from one therapeutic space to another or transitioning from one stage of recovery to another (with regards to weight restoration, meal challenges, learning and adopting emotion regulation and coping skills, etc). This can often be quite an anxiety provoking and overwhelming space as the feeling of the unknown and sitting within the “grey area” can bring up a lot of discomfort which is often masked by the Eating Disorder – as a coping strategy.”
People with eating disorders can struggle with transitions because they often come with change and uncertainty – two things that are difficult to tolerate and that reflect the opposite of a rigid or tightly controlled eating disorder:
“Change challenges what is known and what often feels safe, and when we think about the pathology of an eating disorder, the need for control and certainty is exponential. Transitions and change bring up all the parts of someone recovering from an eating disorder that they try to mask, control, resist acknowledging. High anxiety, resistance and reactivity.”
Here are Kendra’s 3 tips for managing transitions:
- Think about your locus of control. Often we try and control those things that are external to us: instead think about our internal locus of control – our attitude, our behaviours. What could you do differently that could help ease yourself into the change? How could you (personally) approach it differently?
- Up the coping skills engagement. When we are highly anxious, resistant, or reactive, we are in survival mode. Using coping skills such as opposite action, soothing skills, distraction, etc, help us step from survival into soothing which downregulates our system and helps us engage more open-minded with challenges and/or change
- Use social support: reach out to those around you that feel grounded and containing. When we feel overwhelmed, anxious or uncertain of ourselves we need to use the support of others to help anchor us