Recovery is challenging! I am repeatedly moved and impressed by the courage of my patients as they work through recovery from an eating disorder. One strategy that can help support recovery is a careful structuring of one’s recovery environment. This applies to adults working individually in treatment as well as to families helping adolescents to recover from an eating disorder.
Most evidence-based treatments including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggest that patients consider the timing of the start of treatment and potentially postpone it if they anticipate major distractions that will impede recovery. Similarly, it can be helpful when possible to try to minimize challenges.
Above all, recovery looks different for everyone. Some patients are ambivalent about treatment and the changes it will require. Others are eager to be recovered from their eating disorder and just want to get on with life. And many may feel the urge to rush recovery. But I encourage you to “take it slow.”
As a behaviorist, I like to think of recovery as a set of skills that are learned, developed, and practiced in increasingly challenging environments. Whether you are transitioning to an outpatient level of care or beginning treatment as an outpatient or supporting a teen in eating disorder recovery at home, those first few months should be treated like “Recovery 101.” This is a training phase in which you are first learning and trying recovery skills. Your abilities will become more fine-tuned as you practice increasingly challenging skills.
In this phase, it is best to be in a highly structured environment without too many complexities. Most people do best with structure. This is why settings housing large numbers of people tend to be highly structured. (I know – I worked in LA County Jail for 10 years.) This is also why higher levels of care with the sickest patients are highly structured. Structure makes things predictable and reduces anxiety.
In a structured setting, it is easier to follow a routine, such as eating at a regular time, having a familiar meal, and facing fewer distractions. Chaotic and unstructured environments are unpredictable, are therefore more challenging for recovery, and require more advanced and flexible recovery skills.
The Challenge of the Environment
In Recovery 101, it is often easiest to start by keeping things simple and predictable. Each element that adds complexity or uncertainty to the environment presents an additional challenge to someone with an eating disorder. Novel situations, different foods, different food venues, and different companions can all bring anxiety to those in early recovery. Any deviation from a routine requires additional skills, so handling each of these should be viewed as a new skill to master.
We can think about this as a ladder with each rung adding new difficulty. At the bottom is generally eating meals at home with support from immediate family. The next rungs might include steps such as:
- Having friends or relatives over for dinner
- Eating at a close friend’s house
- Eating at a restaurant where individual entrees are served
- Eating at a family-style restaurant
- Eating at a buffet.
Each higher rung on the ladder requires more decisions and thus more skill. You must practice each skill repeatedly.
Take it Slow
Many patients are tempted to climb the ladder quickly, rushing toward the more complicated and challenging situations. However, this is not advisable when someone is in Recovery 101. If at all possible, it is better to delay some challenges until recovery skills are stronger. It is easiest to learn skills first in one place and then to practice them in different settings. In this way, skills generalize over time.
More advanced challenges that may best wait until the basic skills are mastered will vary from individual to individual, but these can include situations such as:
- Weekend schedules when you have slept late (do you count brunch as breakfast or lunch and how do you handle the rest of the meals when your first meal is 3 hours late?)
- Cooking for oneself
- Going to unfamiliar restaurants
- Eating at a small-plates, buffet, or family-style restaurant
- Foreign travel to countries where the foods may be entirely unfamiliar
Ways to Create Structure
Instead of taking on advanced challenges all at once, consider potential ways to structure the environment during early eating disorder recovery. For example:
- Planning out meals for the entire week
- Eating meals at regular times
- Regular grocery shopping
- Having a backup plan (in case you run late or a plan changes)
- Always carrying snacks (and backup snacks)
- Planning alternative activities for high-risk times (for many patients that is evenings spent at home. For one patient, that meant going out on evenings her husband would not be home for dinner.)
- Limiting meals at unfamiliar restaurants
- Only bring into the home small quantities of foods on which you have binged
- Having a support person you can call
- Structured schedules for every day of the week, including weekends
- Careful planning ahead (with your team if you have one) for any situation you have not yet practiced
Keep in mind that you may experience setbacks or lapses. Sometimes you have to go back down the ladder before going back up again. This is a normal part of recovery. This is one reason eating disorder relapse prevention planning is essential.
When recovery is further along, you will be better able to handle more complex and challenging situations. Accordingly, flexibility will come, but for now, keep it simple.
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