Guys, let talk triggers. You know- the nagging people, places, and things that can cause your ED voice to pop up out of nowhere on an otherwise peaceful day? Eating disorders are difficult enough to recover from in the safety of inpatient treatment. Let’s face it- it’s easier to talk about food and feelings within the confines of a group therapy session, while a therapist patrols what is being verbalized. But when it comes to stepping back out into the world, the therapist patrol squad simply cannot be around all the time, and entering back into the real world can feel as intimidating as traveling to a foreign country. Family members might not know what your eating disordered voice does when the term “healthy” is thrown around. Magazine covers loudly display diet tips routinely. Friends might put up a status boasting about their most recent 5k on Facebook. These things will inevitably happen. The tough reality is, triggers are virtually unavoidable.
So what does the term “trigger” even refer to? There seems to be some confusion about what it actually means to be triggered. Some mistake the word trigger to mean cause. In reality, trigger does not mean cause at all. F.E.A.S.T defines trigger as “a person, place, thing, event or emotion that sets an eating disorder in place. In much of the eating disorder community, trigger is used to describe things that are upsetting and can lead to eating disorder behaviors. It is common to hear a patient speak of being “triggered” by specific foods, situations, and interactions. Another school of thought and use of the word is to describe events that lead to actions or emotional states that activate an underlying brain disorder. For example, people often refer to dieting or athletic activities as triggering an eating disorder biologically by putting a person into a state of malnourishment or negative energy balance.”
If we go by that definition, trigger means something that sets off an eating disordered thought/feeling. So what does this mean for us? Well it means that triggers can be just about anything. In fact, during early recovery, it might be wise to expect to be triggered multiple times a day, every day. And that is ok! Recovery involves learning how to live life again, which means learning how to work through difficult emotion and situations. Hence working through triggers is actually a hugely important piece of regaining your independence from the eating disorder. Because the awesome fact is that being triggered does not equal relapsing. No it is not fun to experience the thoughts/feelings that come along with triggers, but as long as you continue to fight the good fight and resist acting on the triggers, they have absolutely no power.
Some insider tips to managing the triggers?
- Before you leave treatment or begin recovering, identify people, places, situations, things, even emotions that you find triggering. Doing so will help you be better prepared to work through them when they occur down the line.
- Plan and write out how you intend to deal with each trigger as it crops up. No you cannot predict every specific situation, however planning for broad categories of triggers can increase your confidence and enable you to more readily deal with them later on
- Notice your thoughts. Learn how to stop the downward spiral of negative/fatalistic/dramatic thinking that accompanies the feeling of being triggered by something. Use an affirmation, journal, call a friend, pop in a movie- whatever works for you- do that!
- Be a little selfish. Don’t be afraid to do what you know is in your best interest when it comes to your recovery. If you know that a certain situation, friend, place, etc. is going to be triggering for you, assert yourself. Verbalize your concerns. Let your family and friends in on what you need to do for you right now. Recovery comes first above all else.
- Educate the people around you. Don’t expect your family or friends to have an innate knowledge of what will be triggering for your. Remember- they are not mind readers, and part of your recovery is protecting yourself and being assertive. This involves informing those around your of what is triggering versus what is helpful. This does not mean that you have to dictate every word that others say to you, but giving people a general idea of what helps/hinders is very reasonable. They will more than likely be extremely thankful that you shed some light on the matter for them!
In essence, keep using the skills that you have acquired so far to fight the eating disordered thoughts. Eventually the number of things that trigger you will decrease. You will, in time, come to feel like an indomitable force against these triggers. In the words of Glenda, “You’ve always had the power my dear. You had it all along.”
Colleen Reichmann, PsyD
Project HEAL Blog Manager