Three Tips for Taming Anxiety in Eating Disorder Recovery

Overwhelmed with anxiety in your eating disorder recovery? Does it feel like anxiety crashes over you like a huge wave? Is it like you’re walking on the beach in San Diego, and all of a sudden you feel flooded with emotion, left shivering in your soaking wet shoes? Do you just want to scream and run away when you feel anxious? Or, do you freeze like a deer in headlights? However anxiety manifests, it can be very difficult to face.

Anxiety can affect us differently, and regardless of how we respond to it, anxiety can really, really suck. I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was a small child. I can remember when my mom would go to the grocery store later at night, I would stay up, worrying that she wouldn’t come home. My mind would go to places like, “she will get into a car accident and die,” or “a bad man will attack her.” Over the years, I’ve since learned that anxiety runs in my family. Both of my grandmothers had terrible anxiety. I heard a story about my English grandmother, who owned two hats (this was in the time in England in the 1940s and 1950s when you’d NEVER go out without your hat!). When she was leaving the house, she’d pick one to wear, and then spend the rest of the time running all of her errands, worrying that she wore the wrong hat! Now that’s a lot of anxiety!

If you grapple with anxiety, it wouldn’t surprise me that you have a strong genetic predisposition for it. Many people with eating disorders struggle with anxiety. If you’re one of them, you likely feel anxious about what you just ate or what you will eat, what your body looks like, as well as about the many stressors in your life. In the two decades I’ve been a therapist, treating anxiety and eating disorders in San Diego and Texas, I’ve learned three tips that have been extremely helpful for both my clients and me. I’m excited to share these tips with you in this post!

TIP #1—Turn Toward Anxiety

I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but turning toward anxiety instead of away from it can actually help. When we feel triggered, the emotion center in our brain, the amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus, which tells the pituitary glands and the adrenal glands to flood our bodies with stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Our bodies then go into fight or flight mode (increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing), and it can also move into the freeze or faint mode. It is such a complex process that can occur in milliseconds.

If everything in our brains and bodies are screaming that we need to run away or freeze and hide, how can we turn toward anxiety? The answer is simple, but not easy. We first accept that the anxiety is there. A lot of us feel as though having anxiety is bad (and anxiety often tells us that anxiety is bad—it’s like being on the hamster wheel from hell).

Anxiety is a survival mechanism. If we change our perspective of it, we can change our relationship with it. Instead of seeing anxiety as the enemy, we can see it as a friend (I know, I know, bear with me). I was recently at a wonderful training put on by the Eating Recovery Center, at which Laura Effland, LICSW, discussed the importance of managing anxiety (see more of her tips here). She stated, “anxiety is not the problem; it’s our response to anxiety that’s the problem.” So, accepting that anxiety is a way of our body telling us information and that we can embrace that information instead of repelling it, can be transformative.

Laura also gave this wonderful analogy. She said that in boxing, people learn that when a punch is coming toward them, they need to lean into the punch instead of away from it. Why? Because leaning in lessens the distance between the person and the fist, when lessens the impact of the hit. When I feel anxious, I often visualize myself turning toward the anxiety, opening my arms, and embracing it. I take a few deep breaths, and then I sit with the anxiety, allow it to come, and open myself to what it is teaching me.

TIP #2—Practice Mindful Self-Compassion

When a lot of us feel anxious, we criticize ourselves for feeling anxious. We might think, “I should be handling this situation better” or “I shouldn’t be feeling so stressed about it” or “Why am I freaking out? It’s not that big of a deal.” Practicing mindful self-compassion means that instead of getting down on ourselves for having anxiety, we express compassion toward ourselves. How do we do that? By recognizing, “yeah, the situation i’m in really sucks, and it makes sense that I feel anxious about it.” It’s all about SELF-VALIDATION.

When we criticize ourselves for feeling anxious, we invalidate our emotions, which can unfortunately trigger more anxiety. If we instead feel self-compassion and tell ourselves, “Oh honey, I know that it’s hard that the kids or screaming, or the boss snapped at me, or my spouse and I had a conflict. Of course you’re having anxiety.” It may feel weird or uncomfortable at first to do so, but remember that practicing mindful self-compassion is a skill. The more that you practice it, the better that you’ll get at it. Check out Dr. Chris Germer or Dr. Kristen Neff’s work on mindful self-compassion for tips on how to strengthen that self-compassion muscle.

TIP #3—Building Distress Tolerance

When we feel the wave of anxiety crashing over us, we can feel like we are being dragged out to sea, choking on the salt water and struggling to keep our heads above water. From neurological and physiological perspective, our bodies can be responding almost as if we are drowning. That’s where using distress tolerance strategies can really help. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) techniques are especially useful in this area. Like practicing mindful self-compassion, building distress tolerance is a skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Using DBT skills such as distraction, radical acceptance, opposite action, and self-soothing can be incredibly helpful. There are some helpful DBT apps that can help you build these skills and provide a resource at your fingertips when you are feeling flooded with anxiety.

If you practice these tips regularly, I think you could see a marked difference in your ability to tame anxiety as you move through your eating disorder recovery journey, both in San Diego and elsewhere. I do want to mention that finding outside resources, such a therapist or a psychiatrist, can be also incredibly helpful. When it comes to managing anxiety, the more support you have, the faster you can tame it.


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If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego, give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be! 

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