Eating Disorder Recovery: Barriers and Challenges

Anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, binge-eating disorder, all of the above. Any other kind of eating disorder (ED) you can think of. They’re distinct from each other, but they also have a lot in common. Perhaps most importantly, recovery is possible in each case. And in each case, that recovery will take a lot of work.

When we are considering ED recovery, it’s helpful to think of it in 3 stages; asking for help, getting help, and maintaining your recovery and a new way of life. Nobody heals in exactly the same way as anyone else, and if you’re trying to recover your journey will be unique. That’s the one fact you can be sure of.

However, there are some issues that almost everyone who is dealing with an ED will face. Understanding what they are can be helpful if you’re trying to recover from any type of eating disorder yourself, or if you want to support someone who is trying to heal.

Barriers to Asking for Help

Modern culture reinforces that being thin and in control of everything is the desirable state. You’re over-exercising, losing weight, or working too much to get enough sleep? Have a gold star! Having these behaviours affirmed by the society around you can be really confusing.

You might feel that acting like this is the only way that you are deemed “worthy”. Admitting that the actions are harmful to you, and asking for support to stop doing them, can feel completely impossible if the people around you think what you’re doing is admirable.

Besides being socially acceptable, these behaviours might still be working as a coping mechanism. For someone still using their eating as a successful distraction from other parts of their life, the ED can be very difficult to give up.

Barriers to Getting Help

Sarah Thompson, an eating disorder recovery coach, explains that the most barriers to getting support can include not having medical insurance that covers the disease, and the inability to take time off work to go into treatment.

In addition to practical obstacles, you need to be able to accept help and get out of your own way if you want to get better. In an interview with psychcentral.com, ED specialist Susan Schulherr explains that disordered eating habits are very hard to shake. Not only did they develop as the best coping mechanism that your brain knew at the time, but they have also become automatic and the neural pathways are very well-trodden.

Barriers to Maintaining Recovery

After you’ve been brave enough to ask for help, and have been lucky enough to receive it, your quest for eating disorder recovery is not over. You no longer need to start getting better; now you need to stay on that path. And this is a whole new way of living and dealing with life.

You also need to work on building a healthy relationship with food. As a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) Julie Holland Faylor explains, in recovery ED sufferers need to get reaccustomed to normal eating habits. People who struggle with substance addictions can (should) abstain from their drug of choice. But someone who is dealing with an ED still has to eat.

In short, now that you know there’s a problem and you’ve got a little insight into handling issues in different ways, you’re going to need to do it. You’re going to have to practice and develop these skills, just like you’d have to with anything you were learning. Don’t be discouraged if you have a setback; everyone does. The important thing is that the setback doesn’t become a block in your recovery process.

Practical Challenges

For people trying to heal from an eating disorder, these barriers affect everyday life in different ways. The practical challenges to recovery are essentially triggers to act out, and include:

  • Having the composition or times of meals changed.
  • Having people comment on weight and/or appearance.
  • Trying to deal with anxiety or low self-esteem related to work or school performance.
  • Arguing with family members or friends.
  • Feeling unheard, ignored, disrespected or ridiculed.
  • Trying to cope with physical, mental or emotional fatigue.
  • Reading weight loss-focused articles, social media posts or books.

The Fear Factor

Schulherr notes that a big barrier to maintaining recovery can be fear. What does life look like without an ED? Now that there are no acting out behaviours to distract you, what problems will you have to deal with? Will your relationships change? Will emotions become overwhelming? Who even are you with your eating disorder to define you? On a more concrete, physical level, what will happen to your body?

The process of learning to trust (and forgive) yourself again is a huge part of ED recovery, as Thompson and many survivors are at pains to point out. Learning to nourish your physical self while taking care of your mental state takes time. You have to confront your beliefs and resentments, and stop lying to yourself and others. If you don’t, these issues might become the biggest barriers of all to your healing. But if you do, they’ll become critical parts of your successful recovery.