IDC-Eating Disorder Care: How to Find Strength in Eating Disorder Recovery After a Traumatic Event

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Why Traumatic Events May Trigger People with Eating Disorders and 10 Steps to Take After a Traumatic Event

Times of tragedy are impossible to fully comprehend. No matter which stage of eating disorder recovery someone is in, traumatic events can be overwhelmingly difficult to cope with. It’s no coincidence that people in recovery often feel intense emotion more than those around them. IDC, a treatment program for eating disorders and co-occurring mental health, offer insight and coping skills for those in recovery when a horrific event occurs.

Why Traumatic Events May Trigger People with Eating Disorders
Licensed Clinical Psychologist and IDC's Clinical Consultant, Dr. Darren Jones explains that a significant percentage of individuals with eating disorders also have a history of experiencing traumatic life events, such as abuse, neglect, or a violent crime. “Often a high-profile event, such as the tragic concert shootings in Las Vegas, can trigger traumatic reactions in these people,” he explains. “In this scenario, they are essentially impacted by both the Las Vegas tragedy itself, but also the past traumatic event that they experienced.

Clinical Director Dr. Jackie Meyers, PhD, L.P. adds that tragic events “may fuel the sense of lack of control and powerlessness commonly identified as a trigger for eating disordered behaviors.”

Why Coping Skills Are Important
Using the skills learned in recovery can help immensely during times of uncertainty. Dr. Jones explains that individuals with eating disorders are sometimes more emotionally reactive to both their own and other people’s circumstances. “It is important to develop healthy coping skills so that when these emotional reactions occur, they can be managed effectively,” he says. “Mindfulness practices are one way that people can develop adaptive coping responses to emotional situations.”

Dr. Jones goes on to explain that empathy can benefit the person in recovery greatly, as well as those around them, if that empathy is channeled positively: “Sometimes empathy can lead to feeling overwhelmed by emotional reactions, [so it’s] important to focus on positive emotional reactions and not get stuck in negativity or feeling helpless. “
People in recovery may be tempted to return to their old behaviors. “It provides a distraction for avoiding--or not dealing with--overwhelming events and situations that are beyond one’s control,” Dr. Meyers explains.

Dr. Jones adds that when a person’s trauma-related symptoms are triggered by current events, he or she will often feel overwhelmed by disturbing thoughts and emotional reactions. “One of the greatest difficulties for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is that when their symptoms are triggered, the brain does not differentiate between the trauma event occurring and the memory of the event,” he shares. “This means that the brain triggers the same psychological and physiological responses during the event itself AND also when remembering the event in the future. As you can imagine, these reactions can be very hard to cope with, and patients will often revert to older, maladaptive coping strategies such as eating disorder behaviors.”

How Patience and Acceptance Strengthen Recovery
For those struggling, Dr. Meyers suggests learning to be patient in the recovery process by accepting that there is not much in life in one’s control. “Unexpected events of triumph or tragedy will require acceptance and learning tools to effectively manage feelings without turning back to disordered eating or behaviors,” she explains. “Utilizing thought challenging and thought re-framing with compassion can help quiet down the disordered self-talk that often leads to relapse.”

10 Steps to Take After a Traumatic Event

1. Find a Specialist and Online Support: Working with an eating disorder specialist or utilizing online resources can help people recognize what is happening to them psychologically and physically, allowing them to better cope with the trauma, according to Dr. Jones. “Most people find it less frightening and overwhelming when they understand the basic mechanisms that are influencing their emotional and bodily reactions,” he tells readers.

2. Reach Out to Loved Ones: Dr. Jones encourages those in recovery to seek emotional support from family and friends. “People often tend to isolate themselves when they experience these symptoms,” he acknowledges. “That is one of the worst things to do. Instead, connect with caring people in your life who can provide support.”

3. Make an Appointment: “If you are already connected with behavioral health treatment, contact your provider and ask for an appointment as soon as possible, or at least schedule a phone session with them,” Dr. Jones urges. “If you do not already have a behavioral health provider, contact an eating disorder clinic to set up an assessment.

4. Utilize National Organizations: “There is peer support available through national organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

5. Be Aware of Your Triggers: Dr. Meyers points out that it’s often necessary to step away from watching and listening to the news. “Compassion toward self and checking in with your emotional responses can help you gauge what is best for you,” she shares. “Loss often triggers intense emotional feelings; try to remember triggers may not be avoidable, but you are able to control how you respond when you are triggered.”

Dr. Jones agrees that it may be best to avoid coverage of tragic events. “People that are at heightened risk for traumatic reactions should be mindful of not watching or reading about these events for extended periods of time,” he notes. “Though it can be challenging, it would be advised that they attempt to avoid media exposure as much as they can during the days immediately following an event of the type that occurred in Las Vegas. Tragically, these events are no longer rare in our society and that adds to the challenge.”

6. Stick to Your Daily Routine: “In addition to avoiding media coverage that dwells on the event, people can also focus on adhering to their daily routine, including attending school or going to work,” Dr. Jones says. “Also, it is important to schedule pleasurable events during these periods, such as time with friends or other enjoyable activities.”

7. Take Care of Yourself and Don’t Avoid Your Feelings: Dr. Jones points out that distraction can be an effective short-term coping mechanism, as long as it’s not used to avoid issues that should be addressed. Dr. Meyers adds, “Allowing feelings to emerge, and not trying to stop or avoid those feelings, is best course of action. Feelings are there to help you grow, so learning to meet them, acknowledge them, and allow them to be experienced is part of recovery. Finding activities you like to do can help give you solace and rest when you are accepting your feelings.”

8. Realize Your Inner Strength: “It is important to remember that being in recovery requires great strength, even though people often feel weak at times,” Dr. Jones acknowledges. “If you are in recovery, you have already faced tremendous challenges and shown great strength of character.”
He adds, “An important part of recovery is learning how to navigate these periods of time. As the saying goes, ‘You cannot stop the waves but you can learn to surf.’ This is an area where peer support can be particularly valuable since peers may be able to validate and relate to your struggle.”

9. Practice Mindfulness: Dr. Meyers reminds people in recovery that self-care is crucial. Dr. Jones notes that mindfulness is also key. “There is evidence that mindfulness practices can be helpful for people to better cope with stress and other behavioral health issues,” he explains. “There are now many inexpensive or free apps, and even YouTube videos, that can assist people in the practice of mindfulness. I would recommend that people download a mindfulness app or watch a YouTube video to try it for themselves.”

10. Remember That Recovery Isn’t Linear: “Each challenge in recovery, whether it leads to a setback or success, is a learning moment,” Dr. Meyers reminds readers.

Dr. Jones acknowledges that the concern of relapsing or having to ‘start over’ is often part of the process. “It’s important to remember that recovery is a process and not a linear one at that,” he notes. “It is the rule rather than the exception that people experience setbacks, and perhaps even relapses, on their recovery journey. While this can be very disappointing and hard to deal with, people can find solace in peer support, self-compassion, and self-care.”

How to Help a Loved One in Recovery After a Trauma
After a traumatic event, family members and friends can be of great help to individuals struggling in their recovery. “Be open and offer support in any way possible,” Dr. Meyers urges.
Dr. Jones encourages family and friends to be supportive and nonjudgmental. “The judgements that even well-meaning loved ones make are often very hurtful and non-productive,” he explains. “One of the best ways for friends and family to show their support is by being present and engaged when spending time with the person that is struggling. This includes not being distracted by phones or other gadgets, and by communicating their empathy through active listening skills.”

He concludes: “We often think that we need to say or do something special in order to help, but truly being present with the person is really the most important thing.”

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Alexis Sears, LLMSW, Admissions Director
IDC-Eating Disorder Care
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