Relaxation Techniques for an Eating Disordered Gal
July 27, 2015 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I am battling an eating disorder and need some strategies to calm down, relieve anxiety and clear my brain before and after meals.

I have suffered from bulimia for four years and as I'm trying to recover, I'm having a hard time clearing my head during those crucial times before or after a meal. Usually, after I eat I get very anxious and stressed and purging is a quick way to relieve that anxiety. I have a really hard time concentrating on anything else for at least an hour after eating.

The worst is the sensation I get after eating, when I have been purging, this tightness in the chest like my food is threatening to come back up. I have to wait at least an hour for that discomfort to go away and it often triggers me to just throw up what I've eaten.

my main issue is purging after a normally portioned meal that I decide I can't keep that day. Often times, if I purge one meal, it'll trigger a cycle through the entire day where I sporadically try to "replace" that meal with another one, then throw up, then try again, you get the idea. If I can avoid that first purge, I am better off the whole day.

I should mention that I'm currently not seeing a therapist, although I do have a psychiatrist and am attending a weekly support group that is helping a lot ( but isn't frequent enough). Basically, I can only see a therapist in my network about once a month because they are so overbooked, and when I do see someone, they don't know enough about me for it to be productive. And since I'm strapped for cash, I don't want to pay a copay for a therapist who is inattentive. I'm taking Effexor currently for my depression and related anxiety; it works somewhat but I'm still trying out the drug.

I have tried calling a friend after eating to distract me, but this isn't always possible if someone close to me isn't available. I try to plan out meals to reduce unpredictable situations, but it can be hard because of my very unpredictable job, and sometimes it really doesn't matter -- I often binge/purge foods with insignificant caloric impact, like raw vegetables.

Exercise helps relive my anxiety a lot, but because of my work schedule (long hours with lots of short notice), I usually can't find time to get to the gym until the late evening. So it's a good strategy when I have time but not helpful when I don't.

Other life notes: I have a very high-stress job with an inconsistent schedule (news reporter); I'm a 23-year-old woman; I have a boyfriend who is supportive, but not very educated on EDs; for now my family doesn't know about my eating disorder, mostly because my parents are immigrants with a poor understanding of mental illness, that mindset has been very hurtful in the past when I've looked to them for support.

I live alone, which has generally been good for my mental health (getting away from triggers in the family and being able to control my environment), but it also makes it easy for me to hide b/p behavior.

So -- I am definitely trying to recover within my current resources. Don't worry about that. What I'm looking for are strategies and tools to relieve my anxiety and clear my head after meals so that I can get through the temporary but very intense anxiety and move on with my day.

Thank you.
posted by mmmleaf to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Good for you - this is very hard stuff and it sounds like you are doing a lot right.

Can you try going for a walk after meals? A long one, if your work schedule permits it? Getting moving might help burn off the anxiety chemicals in your brain, and being out and about (and away from your bathroom) might put an obstacle in your way of your old habits.
posted by pantarei70 at 3:33 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like the "5 Things" mindfulness exercise:

Notice Five Things

This is a simple exercise to center yourself, and connect with your environment. Practice it throughout the day, especially any time you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings.

1. Pause for a moment
2. Look around, and, in your head, name five things you can see.
3. Listen carefully, and name five things you can hear.
4. Notice five things you can feel in contact with your body. (E.g. your watch against your wrist, your trousers against your legs, the air upon your face, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair etc.

More exercises here and elsewhere on the web. You can also find some ED-focused forms online to virtually chat with people.

You might want to check if there's a SMART meeting in your area. They're free and teach anyone with any addiction cognitive techniques to not engage in their addiction. There are also 12 step meetings you could go to. Search online for an Overeaters Anonymous meeting near you (don't let the name fool you--it's for people with any food issues).

Good luck!
posted by oceanview at 3:35 PM on July 27, 2015 [17 favorites]

I was also going to suggest mindfulness - one aspect of it that you might find useful is the idea that if you try really hard to push an unpleasant sensation away (like your post-meal anxiety - both the thoughts and the physical sensations) that actually makes it worse. Instead, mindfulness gradually teaches you to just observe that anxiety and accept that it's there, which can help stop you from getting anxious about the fact that you're anxious and so on - it kind of short-circuits the spiral and replaces it with "OK, I'm feeling this pretty unpleasant physical sensation, and these particular thoughts, but they're just feelings and thoughts, let them be," and the whole thing becomes a little more manageable.

I've explained that really awfully, sorry! But if you look up mindfulness on AskMe you'll find lots of links to resources which I think might help you learn to handle this particular crunch-point.

Oh, in fact one meditation that springs to mind which you might find useful is Kristin Neff's self-compassion meditation for working with difficult emotions in the body. If you can try it regularly over a sustained period, you're most likely to see the benefit. More about Kristin Neff and self-compassion here. Good luck!
posted by penguin pie at 4:02 PM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

You may benefit from the relaxation breathing technique.
posted by vunder at 4:28 PM on July 27, 2015

I'm so sorry you are going through this. I was bulimic for a number of years. I no longer purge, but I do binge eat when the anxiety is too much. Somewhere along the way, I just decided that I didn't want to die of esophagus cancer. That just sounds so brutal. So I would say that I still have the eating disorder but in a less dangerous form, simply because some switch in my mind flipped when I decided I didn't want to die like that if I could help it. Also, being at peace with being fatter helped although I don't actually think bulimia is about being fat so much as it is about relieving pressure. Once I was able to let go of a lot of artificial values, I was able to let go of the bulimic behavior.
I wish you peace.
posted by gt2 at 4:29 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

The book One Bowl: A Guide to Eating for Body and Spirit is a mindfulness-based approach to eating, based on Buddhism. Perhaps paying this kind of close attention to the act of eating, from before the meal all the way through after you're done, might be helpful?
posted by Lexica at 4:48 PM on July 27, 2015

Are you the same way about beverages, or does the act of drinking something not cause the same urges? An acquaintance of mine who is really open about her ED always drinks a cup of herbal tea after she eats, in small sips to help her transition to a state of not-eating. It's usually mint but one time I was with her and she ended up asking for hot water and lemon. She described it as a ritual thing, a way to control her state of mind with physical actions and sensations, and also further occupying her hands and mouth with something she perceived as harmless (as opposed to eating solid foods) helped keep her from running off to purge because she was "busy".

If you think a beverage wouldn't work for you, maybe some other kind of transition ritual would help? These are very idiosyncratic, but something like a prayer/personal affirmation or an act of self care (brushing your hair, applying lotion, looking at cute animal videos...) might help you form a healthy structure for yourself?
posted by Mizu at 5:39 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I will suggest that you keep a food journal and see if some foods are worse than others about triggering vomiting. I have a serious medical condition. I am not eating disordered. But I deal with frequent vomiting and I have wondered at times if bulimia is partly influenced by some physical/medical thing that encourages vomiting. I often feel tremendous relief after vomiting. It is not at all psychological. It is because it reduces my medical symptoms. It is very much a physical sensation of relief and then I tend to sleep hard afterwards.

Sometimes, eating rice helps my nausea go away and reduces the likelihood of vomiting. Sometimes, Natural Jif peanut butter helps get it under control.

At one time, I was having very bad anxiety as a medical side effect. I did some research and concluded that dill, rosemary or sage would help take the edge off my severe anxiety. I was clear it was medically induced and I had a good idea of the mechanism behind it. Such snacks really helped me get the anxiety under control. You could see if such foods might similarly reduce your physical state of anxiety.
posted by Michele in California at 6:45 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Usually I stay super far from ED threads because they are not good for me, but I really appreciate the neutral way you phrased your question and a lot of these super helpful answers. Thank you, oceanview, for linking to SMART (looks like there's a meeting in my neighborhood on the day I always have off, so if I don't try it at least once I'm being unreasonably stubborn).

As for a small contribution, so this comment isn't just noise: try guided relation, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing guidance tapes, etc and see if you can find a voice you like. I enjoy the album Guided Relaxation for Teenagers by Edna Reinhardt (no teen content, it's just less new age-y than similar recordings) and I have a lot of friends who use the Buddify App.

Like Michele in California, I have physical discomfort after eating sometimes, and keeping Tums around and being very liberal with it after eating helps somewhat. If I don't feel good I'll take one and wrap a few more in toilet paper and tuck them in my pocket and eat them one at a time, spaced out.

I also try to take the pep talks I would give to a best friend who is having a bad mental health day to myself. "You are valuable and loved, you deserve to eat, you deserve nourishing food, you deserve to take care of your body, you deserve to treat yourself well."

I have been really sick lately to be honest in a lot of ways and, like you, I'm way worse on days where I've engaged in disordered eating. Sometimes I tell myself, "if you just keep this down, as a favor to Future You, it's going to make so much of a difference in your mood and how your day goes, and (puts on tough guy hat) you really can't afford to bring extra shit on yourself right now so can you please just chill for half an hour and get over it."
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:26 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Have you considered medical MJ? Maybe that could help, if it's an option near you.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:49 AM on July 28, 2015

Creating a post-meal ritual seems like it could be helpful. You might want to come up with a list of things you can try when feeling this way that you can refer to when you need to. Drinking herbal tea, reading affirmative writings (could be religious or self-affirmations) or poetry out loud, or the mindfulness techniques above are good suggestions. Perhaps a short walk, if a long one is not feasible. Maybe "100 steps to live 100 years", which you could even do inside. Perhaps sending a text or calling to your boyfriend (just an "I love you" or "hello") or to another friend. Standing up and doing "head, shoulders, knees and toes". Make a playlist of youtube videos that make you smile or feel calm and watch one. Sing your favorite song, or listen to it. Coloring in a coloring book. Playing a puzzle game on your phone.

The idea is to experiment until you have a ritual that feels right for you and helps you get through these moments. Also to just have a list of self-care activities that you can always look to when you need it.
posted by ewok_academy at 6:27 AM on July 28, 2015

For me, mindfulness was the worst idea--all that happened was I would focus even more intently on my anxious state and it would turn into a negative feedback loop. I know a lot of ED therapists push mindful eating and I can see why, but I found mindfulness to be very difficult in the early stages of my recovery and perhaps even counterproductive (it was helpful later on, but I needed to get out of crisis first).

What worked for me was video games. Fast, active, engaging games that I was intellectually interested in but required quick reflexes and all of my attention. Set a timer, and play video games for an hour. Plus, it is fun and very portable (especially if you have a smartphone).
posted by epanalepsis at 8:20 AM on July 28, 2015

What helped me the most was eating low carb because it mitigated hypoglycemia, which is particularly brutal when binge/purging on high carb foods. Hypoglycemia put me into an irreversible spiral to binging so I needed to fix that first. Atkins is great but I imagine there are other great books out there nowadays that describe low carb eating. I like Atkins because it's simple and it underscores that during the corrective Induction phase, no starches are allowed, not one bite. After 4 days or so, my cravings for food disappeared and I replaced thinking about food with living. I started treating food as if it were the least important part of my day--something necessary but not requiring much thought. Keep meals simple and repetitive if you like in order to minimize your urge to think about food. Meat and salad, dairy if you can tolerate it, avocados. A lot of research is showing that saturated fats are the healthiest fats if one eats a flour-less type of diet that reduces inflammation. Grass fed butter is amazing, fresh food only and no boxed or prepared foods from the store. I love spicy homemade meat curries so I would make a lot of those (no rice but as much of the curry as I wanted--trust me, you will be surprised at how little it will take to satisfy you once you have stabilized your blood sugar and are in ketosis!). If you don't want to lose weight, eat more but not too much to make yourself bloated and sick. Years later I am able to eat a variety of food and love eating out but I avoid starches so I don't go back to disordered eating.
posted by waving at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey mmmleaf. I just noticed your post and I thought I'd add on just in case you're still listening. I have been purge-free for 5 years. It was definitely hard at first, but you're doing EXACTLY what I did. One of the things I started with was bargaining. Seeing if I could put off purging for 10 minutes, then 1/2 hour. Then an hour. Then it didn't make sense anymore and it hurt more. I also created a coping bank. This was a little jar with suggestions in it for what to do rather than purge (color, take a walk, go to the library, sew, clear the dishwasher, etc.) If one didn't work, I'd throw it back in there and pick a new one until one seemed right. I probably had 50 or so little pieces of paper in the jar.

Hope you're doing ok. Feel free to memail if you want.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:04 PM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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