6 Practice to Help With Body Image Distress in Recovery
Eating disorder recovery may be one of the most courageous and transformative experiences you’ll ever go through.
Recovery requires working through so many intense fears and challenges, and body image fears and distress can feel like some of the most difficult.
Part of you may truly want to give up your food rules and the constant thoughts and anxiety about food and your body. However, fears of how your body will change and of how you will feel when it does might feel like a huge barrier to making the changes part of you desperately wants to be able to make.
For me, the fear that I might never feel at peace in my body was one of the biggest obstacles to being able to give up my eating disorder behaviours and fully recover. It felt like such a confusing and insurmountable obstacle.
If you feel the same, know that you are not alone. And also, know that this does not have to be a final stumbling block.
Each of the following helped me significantly and pulled me through many dark times when I believed recovery wasn't worth it or possible, and when I felt like daily behaviours surely must be better than feeling trapped in a body I could never feel at peace with.
I hope the following practices will bring you comfort, hope and renewed motivation to keep moving forwards.
1. Embrace Your Suffering
Your body as a phobia
It felt like what I can only imagine a phobic reaction feeling like.
For the first long while in my recovery every time I moved, every time I sat down in tight pants, every time I put on clothes or looked in a mirror or reflective window a feeling of panic would come over me, like I was having a phobic reaction to my changing, gaining body.
I had conditioned myself for so long to equate a certain body size with peace of mind and personal success and discipline that of course going against this by my own actions brought about the opposite feelings and thoughts automatically – panic, disgust, shame and fear. And for my anxious perfectionistic mind, this brought about a sense of panic that felt like a phobic reaction to my changing body.
However, a new way of viewing my struggle helped me significantly in being able to tolerate and push through this fear and discomfort.
I started working on accepting that yes it was absolutely hard, painfully hard, but also courageous. AND that it would get better. And that yes, my pain was real, it was like having a phobic reaction to my body after everything I had programmed myself to think for so long.
This concept of accepting the pain and discomfort that must come with overcoming a phobia helped me to compare my body discomfort to other things that feel uncomfortable and foreign at first, and then become normal to the brain over time: losing a tooth, having something new against your skin, your hand getting used to cold water.
It helped to remind myself that my brain just needed time to catch up to my body, and that my discomfort with my body just meant it was new, not that it was inherently wrong. The pain and discomfort were normal, AND would pass. My struggles were indeed courageous because of how hard they were. A phobia was no small thing to overcome.
The power of “Yes”
Saying “Yes” became an invaluable part of my recovery toolbox, despite how simple it seemed.
I learned this acceptance practice from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge.
Whenever I noticed thoughts that were in resistance to my current circumstances or to my body, I would simply repeat to myself slowly, “Yes”, several times in my head. It was amazing how my body would relax and soften and the distress from my thoughts would lessen.
In Practice: The next time you notice yourself feeling distress about your body, try simply saying “Yes” to yourself in your mind.
Notice how your body feels as you say it to yourself. Do you feel your body soften? Do you feel your mind quiet, even just a bit?
Crying for healing
Letting myself cry became a transformative and healing practice for me. It acted as a powerful release when I felt overwhelmed by my changing body and fears that it would never get easier or feel worth it.
I would simply let myself cry, and soothe myself as best I could with self-compassionate thoughts and inner dialogues inspired by Kristin Neff’s wonderful book, Self-Compassion.
For example, with thoughts like, "It's okay, suffering is a part of life, and connects you to all of humanity. What you're doing is so brave. I'm so sorry you're in so much pain, but it's a beautiful, transformative thing. Let yourself feel it, you're doing such powerful work."
After, I would almost always feel more clear-headed and brave about the magnitude of the work I was doing. This made it so much easier to continue onwards and to not give up, even when it felt so painfully hard.
2. Start the Gradual Process of Unlearning
Beginning to question why I thought a thin, toned body was so beautiful and worth striving for in the first place was also a necessary practice.
Automatically seeing any body fat as a failure that needed to be fixed had become so ingrained for me. However, beginning to examine this belief helped me greatly in being able to lessen the automatic fearful thoughts that would pop up when I examined my changing body.
I started thinking about how unnatural it seemed that society viewed female bodies as beautiful when they were too thin or had too little body fat to bear children…….surely this must be a learned and not an inherent phenomena or we would never have survived as a species.
So if it was a conditioned preference, it could also then be unconditioned.
Looking at paintings and images of women from other eras such as the Renaissance, or images and sculptures of the Sacred Feminine and goddesses, which resembled anything but current mainstream models, helped me a lot.
I started seeking out images of larger models, larger famous women, and recovered individuals to look at as often as I could. And I realized that I thought they looked beautiful, so with time and exposure surely my brain could begin to see my own body the same way.
I stopped looking at magazines and social media that fed into the mainstream ideal of beauty, femininity and fitness, and this helped my unlearning a lot.
Eventually, I did start viewing my own body fat or lack of ‘toned-ness’ as much more normal, feminine, and eventually even beautiful.
- Sarah Rzemieniak, Recovery Coach