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Hard Questions about Recovery from Body and Food Issues - What Does Recovery Mean and Look Like


Recently I was asked an interesting question in therapy, one I hadn’t thought about EVER...

The question was…

Well, it was a little shocking, to be honest. You know when someone asks you a question and it stops you in your tracks. It is too often that after being asked any question, an immediate answer comes out of your mouth. This very question was not like that at all. I had to take a pause and get my mindfulness in gear.

And then I thought, I guess that is what therapy is about, being asked hard questions and then having to really stop and think. Ugh! Now, the question…

“What would you expect recovery to look like and how do you expect to get there?”

The immediate thought is the obvious, natural answer. “I don’t know.”

It is widely known that “I don't know” is a response that is covering something. It is too immediate and effortless. It is as if the brain can’t imagine recovering from any type of body issues. There is fear in the fact that no matter how hard you try to recover, that it’s impossible. These false statements give way to “I don’t know.”

When I stopped to pause, I began to imagine what recovery would look like: psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

I get there by being self-aware about my habits, my emotions, and my actions and how that relates to my body and weight. Recovery would mean changing past behaviors. To more consciously focus on my thoughts, emotions, and motivations for my behaviors. I would want these aspects of myself to connect in harmony and work towards higher self esteem. I want to embrace my natural emotions and how they turn to thoughts and actions. To be recovered is to get to a place where I can know how to tweak my thoughts so that my emotions don’t rule my life and behaviors.

But then I think what is health and wellness without the thought of my body? I’m sure I’m not the only one with this focus…, the first image of recovery that comes up is me in the mirror and a smile as I size myself up.

***Cue the spine-tinglingly sexy statement: “How YOU doin?”***

The physical aspect of recovery is a huge part of it, but it is only scratching the surface.

It’s the flat stomach I always wanted, the pair of low riding jeans without a muffin top, confidence in a crop top, and finally fitting into my goal dress as I prepare psychologically for my wedding.

I want to feel confident with my relationship with my partner, thinking I’m the most beautiful, sexy person on the planet. I want to feel that energy coming from me and from them. Not that I need them to make me feel good about myself, but as my partner is a huge part of my life, I want to keep our relationship on the up and up and that means taking care of myself. I can tell that he loves it when I am working on completing my health and wellness goals. I saw health and wellness as an umbrella term, but I really do highlight weight loss and body issues.

Recovery in my mind also means exercise.

I want to make sure that I have a consistent, yet non obsessive, exercise routine. I want to have discipline because I know that exercise is good for my body. My emotions towards exercising might not change. I might remain emotionally lazy, but I want to be able to change the thoughts I have about exercise so that I am more motivated to change my behaviors.

This woman is not getting any younger and when your back hurts after you wake up, you know that yoga needs to be a part of the recovery formula because most likely, your weight is affecting all body parts, even the ones you don’t think it does.

The recovered lifestyle requires inner motivation and integrity. My hope is that with enough work on changing my thoughts, my behaviors will change, and then my emotions will follow. After enough exercise and positive results, my emotions might change on their own. That would be the best form of recovery in my mind!

I picture myself with less stress, better sleeping habits, drinking lots of water, eating healthier, coping with obsessive compulsive mind and negative habits. To recover I have to steer away from negative thinking, to let things go, to accept mistakes, and to know how to move on in the right direction.

Part of my pathway towards recovery is having a therapist that focuses on these goals. Now, another difficult, life shifting question…

In Summary, I Don’t Think I’ll be Fully Recovered…

I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully accept the issues that I have with my body and what it will take to recover even if I do achieve everything I just wrote down. But I guess, that’s half the battle and I would need to recover from that too!

BRIAN BAUMAL WRITES Meredith, the last paragraph is perhaps the most revealing – do we ever fully recover from our eating or body image issues? More broadly, do we ever recover from psychological issues and, if so, what does recovery look like?

Broadly speaking, therapy focuses on a triumvirate psychological factors: 1) Emotions; 2) Behaviours; 3)Cognitions/Thoughts. Using this model, there are two possibilities for recovery.

The first is that only our behaviours change – which is what many clients want to happen for themselves. While behaviour change often requires the therapist and client to work on addressing underlying thoughts, emotions and providing tools to manage them, many clients believe recovery occurs when their behaviour has changed, even if all of the underlying thoughts and emotions have not fully changed. An example of this is fairly simple – someone with a tendency to purge food eats a donut. Rather than purging, they are able to manage the anxiety of eating a donut by changing their thoughts to “I know that eating a donut does not impact me as a person, and does not say anything about my willpower” or “I know that I hate purging”. In other words, the anxiety of eating the donut still remains, but a successful modification in thoughts produces the desired behaviour change, and based on this, someone may call themselves recovered.

A second form of recovery is where all three factors are completely aligned – that is, in order to modify behaviour, the thoughts and emotions that may cause a binge never actually occur to begin with, such that the behaviour is avoided.

Behind the therapist curtain, there is healthy debate as to which one, or both, represents recovery, and if a relapse that is properly managed and mitigated is part of recovery. My view is that as long as behaviour changes it does not make a difference if thoughts and emotions change, as long as they are managed.

I want to provide a few comments on the above. The first has to do with self-esteem. I think those with low self-esteem will only accept the second form of recovery, whereby all three factors align together. I think those with low self-esteem may be likely to say “What kind of person am I if I behave in one way, but still have thoughts that make me want to behave in another?” or “A perfect person would never even think about eating a donut, and I don’t want those thoughts, even if I can manage the behaviour.” In other words, they continue to discount their own positive behaviours as any form of recovery.

The second point I will make is the fact that on a personal level, I do not think that one form of recovery is better than the other. I believe however, that it is possible to experience the first form of recovery (e.g. only behaviour change) before experiencing the second form of recovery (e.g. change in behaviour, thoughts and emotions).

To give an example of my own, I suffered from moderate depression and spent years working on addressing the issue. I was provided sufficient tools to just change my depressive behaviours, not necessarily the thoughts and emotions. However, within a few years, all those factors became aligned, and I think it is safe to say that I do not have thoughts or emotions that would lead to a depressive behaviour episode.

However, I have changed my relationship with food for almost 10 years, even though I still constantly think about food, still constantly crave food after having a bad day and still want to give-in to night-time eating. Moreover, sometimes I actually do give into these desires and have what I call unplanned binges. In this instance, only my behaviours have changed, not necessarily my thoughts or emotions.

Having experienced both types of recovery, I can say that none is “better” than the other – and I truly mean that. I am thrilled with the relationship I have with food and body now, even if my thoughts and emotions don’t align with my behaviours. I do not judge myself for having those thoughts and emotions, and am thankful that I am able to manage them in order to maintain the changes I have made and the lifestyle that I want. I guess you can say that I have come to learn to accept the fact that I cannot change my thoughts and emotions around food – and that’s OK by me.

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