I constantly move—so much so that I feel anxious if I have been sitting for more than about 20 minutes at a time. In fact, even as I type this sentence, I am doing calf raises while standing in front of my computer. On most days, I run or walk an average of 20,000 steps, and if I fall below that threshold, I frenetically pace around the living room while I watch TV at night. I happen to be someone with a lot of natural energy, but I often wonder: Am I just active, or is it my exercise addiction? Moreover, how can I strike a healthy balance in this area?
Addictions and Eating Disorders
As someone who started flirting with anorexic behaviors in early adolescence, I have cycled in and out of many toxic, compulsive traits over the years. But although I consider myself to be in a stable, consistent recovery mindset now, the competitive nature of my eating disorder still pulls me back into its orbit sometimes. In fact, I noticed this competitive streak reassert itself as recently as last night.
If you have experience with trauma-informed mental health care, it's quite possible that you're also familiar with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This therapy is an intervention used to help the brain resolve unprocessed traumatic memories, as well as the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and physical reactions or sensations connected to those memories. But, is EMDR therapy useful for eating disorder treatment? That's a nuanced question without a one-size-fits-all answer. However, as someone who is currently in the thick of EMDR sessions myself, I want to examine its potential benefits for eating disorder recovery.
During a recent session with my therapist, I felt compelled to ask for her professional take on my relationship with exercise. I told her that I prioritize running over just about every other line item in my routine. I told her that I feel immense amounts of shame if I cannot squeeze in an hour-long workout on a daily basis. I told her that I consistently run in the 105-degree Arizona heat, no matter how miserable the experience is. I told her that I rarely feel like the choice to stop running is even an option. I told her that I am afraid that without exercise, I will lose control of my entire life. She listened to me rattle off all this information, then replied matter-of-factly: "You have an exercise addiction. How is it working for you?"
Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition that will impact an estimated one in 50 people over the course of a lifetime.1 In some cases, those with body dysmorphia also suffer from eating disorder behavioral patterns such as caloric restriction, compulsive exercise, binge-purge cycles, or obsession with weight. The earliest signs of body dysmorphia often manifest in adolescence,2 and anyone can be at risk—no matter their gender pronouns, sexual orientation, body composition, or ethnic background. Here is what you should know about body dysmorphia in case you (or a loved one) are exhibiting symptoms of this mental illness.
Eating disorders are deadly but also treatable mental illnesses. Still, in my early struggle to recover, there were many common eating disorder treatments that didn't work for me. Understand, I am not saying that they don't work for anyone. On the contrary, they work for countless people who suffer. This said, there is no one road to recovery, and I write this blog post in the hopes of inspiring people who haven't had any luck with traditional eating disorder treatments to keep going.
Synonymous with gorging oneself on immense quantities of food and drink, for those of us in eating disorder recovery, Thanksgiving can be a stressful time. However, you don't have to suffer. There are some simple ways you can navigate Thanksgiving in eating disorder recovery, and they all involve one key strategy.
Just this morning, I opened my email inbox and noticed a subject line which read, "How many steps should you take to lose weight?" As someone who continues to battle thoughts of anorexia on a daily basis, my first reaction to seeing this was to click the email thread, so I could know the answer. I was even tempted to scroll through my mobile fitness tracker to ensure I habitually reach the step count required. But since I am also in committed recovery now, this initial reflex was supplanted by another, more constructive question: "Can fitness trackers worsen eating disorder behaviors?" Could monitoring the number of steps taken, floors climbed, miles run or walked, and calories burned increase the obsessive patterns which eating disorders thrive on? Based on my own experience, I think that answer is, "Yes."
Exercise can be a great tool to help you through eating disorder recovery, but my experience has shown me the thin, blurry line between healthy exercise and over-exercise in eating disorder recovery. In recent weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic and my mental health fall-out has revealed just how much of my self-worth has been wrapped up in my workouts. It was a sobering realization and one I vowed to change.
Traveling in recovery from an eating disorder poses some challenges. How big those challenges are will depend on where you are in your recovery. I've recently returned from a week-long vacation to Cuba with my family, and even a decade into recovery, I faced my fair share of hurdles.