Embracing Fear in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating disorders are disorders that hijack your brain as well as your body. While sick with an eating disorder, many things that used to be second nature, such as eating, become loaded with fear and anxiety.  An essential step in recovery is confronting your fear and re-learning to do activities that the eating disorder has prevented you from doing. 

How can you tackle the fear?

The answer may sound simple, but it is anything but. 


In recovery, you tackle the fear by doing the very things that cause fear and anxiety. In this instance, just do it, is actually very complicated. Recovery from an eating disorder truly requires asking someone to confront the thing they are most afraid of over and over again each day.

Why is it important to take these difficult action steps?

When we repeatedly expose ourselves to the things we fear, we begin to retrain our brain and our faulty associations. Over time, the outcome teaches us that the feared situation is not truly dangerous. For example, after eating pizza a handful of times, you have the opportunity to see that eating pizza does not cause weight gain. However, staying in the place of avoidance keeps you stuck in the painful and limiting belief, allowing fear to grow. Only through the process of exposure does the brain have an opportunity to learn a new association. 

Even in the face of fear, we must focus on the next step. The following steps may help you identify ways to deconstruct the forces causing your anxiety and tackle the fear one step at a time.

1. Develop a list of feared/avoided behaviors.

This can be a list of feared foods, or things you have not done because of the eating disorder (e.g. wearing a bathing suit at the beach). Rank the items on your list from least scary to that which causes the highest level of anxiety. Develop a plan of addressing these behaviors one at a time. A quick tip- exposure requires you to do these things more than once for them to become more comfortable!


2. Use your support.

It is difficult to recover alone. Use the support you have. Eat feared foods in a setting that is most comfortable for you and with those that bring you comfort. It is okay to rely on the support of those around you, including your treatment team.


3. Take it one step at a time and set your own pace.


You don’t have to do it all at once. Recovery is an imperfect and messy process. You can speed up or slow down at any time. Even when you change your pace or take a turn you are still making progress. 


4. Practice the art of self-compassion.

Recognizing this is a difficult process and validating that is essential. Fear is a part of change and growth. Do your best to be kind and gentle with yourself in the process. You can move forward and progress at a rate that works for you without beating yourself up! 


5. Stay connected with what motivates you.

Eating disorders take so very much. Remind yourself why you are committed to recovery and what you are working to gain. This will keep you centered in the face of fear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristine Vazzano

Kristine Vazzano, PhD has a private practice in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She is also the co-founder and CEO of CEDARS, a comprehensive eating disorder facility providing group programing, intensive outpatient services and intuitive movement. Kristine is passionate about providing accessible resources to assist those suffering in obtaining a life free from food/weight preoccupation. This passion has connected her with Project HEAL providing treatment scholarships at the IOP level through CEDARS. 

Away from work, Kristine can be found chasing adventures with her three children, reading a good book, or drinking a latte. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is anything with peanut butter and chocolate! 

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