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Effective Coping Skills Used in Eating Disorder Recovery
Going through eating disorder recovery can be equal parts rewarding, difficult, and frustrating. You may encounter triggering scenarios that threaten some of the progress you’ve made, or find yourself adopting old thinking and behavioral patterns.
That’s why coping skills are so important.
While living a life free of triggers or backslides is nearly impossible, these mental health tools and coping strategies can help you adjust the way you feel about or react to these events, which could make all the difference in helping keep you on track, and helping you avoid additional pain, unhappiness, or fear.
Common Coping Skills
There are many different approaches to healthy coping mechanisms, and what’s most helpful for you will depend on everything from the eating disorder or mental health conditions you struggle with to your individual personality.
Still, there are some broad categories of coping skill you’ll likely encounter in eating disorder treatment, including: 
- Task-oriented coping skills
- Emotion-oriented coping strategies
- Avoidance-oriented coping mechanisms
Some of these categories may work better for you, or you may find that a mix of different skills is most helpful. In time, you may even add new techniques to your toolkit.
Task-Oriented Coping Skills for Eating Disorders
Are you a checklist person? Do you like to get things done quickly and efficiently? If so, this set of coping skills may appeal to you.
Task-oriented coping skills are designed to help you solve a problem or alter a situation.
Rather than avoiding a situation that makes you feel triggered or uncomfortable, a task-oriented coping strategy will ask you to do something proactive about it. The general idea behind these strategies is that action, of any sort, is better than inaction.
Seek Professional Help
Connecting with a member of your care team when things go wrong is a proactive approach that may help you feel better about the situation.
You can also make it a goal to keep regular appointments with a member of your care team, such as your therapist or nutritional counselor. Filling up your calendar with check-in tasks can help you feel more in control of the situation, and also help ensure your care team is up-to-date on how you’re feeling.
Reach Out to Peers
Meeting with others in your support group is another way to help alleviate negative thoughts and disordered behaviors.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or tempted to utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms again, someone in your peer group may have a good idea of what you’re going through, and act as a sounding board or source of good advice.
Check in With Yourself
Still, perhaps the most important person it’s important to keep up with during your recovery process is you.
Task-oriented approaches ask you to be proactive about managing your recovery. This could include creating a meal plan, preparing your own meals, or regularly journaling your thoughts and feelings.
Journaling can be a helpful tool to not only express yourself and release any pent-up emotions or thoughts, but to help keep track of how you’re feeling, and why. This information can be used moving forward, to help you watch out for potential triggers.
Emotion-Oriented Coping Skills for Eating Disorders
Do you often wrestle with an overwhelming sense of pain, sadness, or anxiety? Is feeling deep feelings part of your identity? If so, you may find emotion-oriented coping skills helpful.
Rather than doing something to address a situation directly, this set of skills works to help change the way you feel about a situation.
Many eating disorders are sustained by deeply-felt emotions, including anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. Impulsivity, or the tendency to act without thinking, is another big driver of disordered behaviors.
But by engaging in some of these emotion-oriented strategies, you may be able to introduce more measured objectivity to the equation.
Mindfulness is a set of skills and techniques that help you focus on the present moment. This can help you dismiss anxiety, which is derived from worries about the future, or depression, which is often rooted in thoughts about the past.
Practicing mindfulness techniques regularly can also help your thoughts catch up to your emotions. This allows you to take a moment to make a more measured and informed decision when something upsetting happens, rather than simply reacting.
With a focus on breathing and getting you in touch with the movements and sensations of your body, yoga can almost be thought of as its own mindfulness technique.
The ancient practice, which ties breath to body, can also help you learn to slow down any racing thoughts or get a hold of big feelings, and help you regulate your emotional responses.
Visualization techniques are used in many different types of treatment, and have proved to be powerful methods to help form new thoughts and behaviors.
If you’re having a tough time with a triggering person or situation, you can imagine yourself in a safe space, where you’re free from this scenario.
You can also use visualization to help you manifest happiness. Start by imagining the sensation of happiness itself, then expand your view. What are you doing that’s making you feel this way?
Imagine as many details as possible about the scenario. This won’t just help you feel better in the present moment, but give you a good idea of what may help you feel happy in the future.
Avoidance-Oriented Coping Skills
If you find conflict particularly upsetting or feel sensitive toward trauma or potentially triggering situations, avoidance-based coping skills may be a good coping method to explore.
This approach is not without its risks. Research has found that people who lean significantly or exclusively on avoidance-oriented coping skills tend to have higher levels of eating disorder stress. 
But utilizing avoidance strategies in certain scenarios could help you get through an otherwise difficult situation.
Change Your Routines
Sometimes, the routines you create help perpetuate unhelpful thoughts or behaviors, whether or not this is a conscious effect.
If you regularly walk past a café filled with pastries, and this sparks your cravings to binge, change your walking route. If you know you come home from work hungry and are liable to grab the nearest snack, you could try preparing a healthy meal ahead of time, so you have better options waiting for you.
These changes can be big or small, but they can and should help you stick to a healthier path.
Find More Helpful or Understanding Friends
Sometimes, unhelpful thoughts and behaviors can be connected to the people in our social circles.
Whether it’s the influence of friends who prioritize body image and have no problem using unhealthy methods to achieve a certain weight, or people with negative energy that can be triggering, the people around us often impact our mood, manner, and motivation.
If spending time with old friends is difficult for any of these reasons, it’s okay to find new ones who are more aligned with healthier thoughts, behaviors, and activities.
Buy New Clothes
While eating disorders are mental health conditions, they also often have social ties. Many people may pursue unhelpful eating behaviors in order to fit into certain clothes, or a feel a certain way in their clothing.
Still, it’s possible to look beautiful, stylish, and well-put together at any size.
Buying new clothes that fit and flatter your body shape is a great way to celebrate yourself and your progress. Buy an outfit that makes you feel good about yourself, and the positive affirmations that follow can lead to a spike in self-esteem.
Other Ideas for Coping with Negative Emotions
These are, of course, only a handful of the coping skills regularly introduced to eating disorder patients. But there are dozens of other strategies that can help, even if they don’t necessarily fall into one of the three main categories of coping mechanisms, including:
- Getting involved in activities that interest you. This can help ignite feelings of creativity and passion and boost your self-esteem.
- Talking with friends, online or in person.
- Making a list of positive affirmations. Pick one, and recite it to yourself while looking in the mirror. After repeating this action a number of times, the affirmation will start to become part of your natural thinking.
- Getting a massage. This can help you release feelings of fear or anxiety.
- Walking your dog or playing with your cat, to boost feelings of connectivity and happiness.
- Making a fun to-do list of activities with your friends.
- Taking classes to learn a new skill or hobby.
- Making a list of things you’re are grateful for. This can help you remember all the positive things going on in your life.
Incorporating these types of coping skills into your life can help you make lasting, positive changes that can help sustain your recovery.
The Importance of Healthy Coping Skills
Eating disorders are almost always tied in to co-occurring mental health concerns, including low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, disordered eating behaviors evolve as maladaptive coping skills, to help you deal with these unpleasant conditions and feelings.
The food we eat and the body we occupy are some of the most intimate things we have agency over. For many people who feel overwhelmed by other aspects of their life, practicing strict authority over their food choices and body weight, shape, and size may help them feel a regained sense of control. Some disordered eating behaviors, including binge eating, may also feel soothing during emotional or stressful situations.
That we come to depend on these behaviors for comfort is another reason why healthy coping mechanisms are a critical aspect of lasting recovery.
Researchers say up to 41% of people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN) relapse within the first 18 months of treatment.  But when health coping skills are emphasized in someone’s eating disorder treatment, they have a better chance at avoiding this type of backslide.
Your therapy team may help you find techniques that are right for you. And in your sessions, you can practice skills together. If you run into unexpected roadblocks, your team can help you adjust your approach too.
Remember: You are in charge of your recovery. Finding the tools and techniques that work best for you is a great way to ensure that recovery is a happy and lasting one.
- Fitzsimmons, E. E., & Bardone-Cone, A. M. (2010). Differences in coping across stages of recovery from an eating disorder. The International journal of eating disorders; 43(8):689–693.
- MacNeil, L., Esposito-Smythers, C., Mehlenbeck, R., Weismoore, J. The Effects of Avoidance Coping and Coping Self-Efficacy on Eating Disorder Attitudes and Behaviors: A Stress-Diathesis Model. (2012). Eating Behaviors; 13(4):293-296.
- Berends, T., van Meijel, B., Nugteren, W., Deen, M., Danner, U. N., Hoek, H. W., & van Elburg, A. A. (2016). Rate, timing and predictors of relapse in patients with anorexia nervosa following a relapse prevention program: a cohort study. BMC Psychiatry; 16(1):316.
Published and last reviewed on February 23, 2023 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com