Interrupting The Vicious Cycle of an Eating Disorder

vicious cycle - image of a girl sitting staring straight ahead, with blurred ocean behind her, serious expression on her face

Standing in front of my mirror, my stomach feels like it’s filled with rocks. Panic races in my heart as one thought repeats in my head. Over and over again I ask myself, “What have I done?” Barely recognizing the reflection gazing back at me I question, “Have I taken this recovery thing too far?” Discarded clothes scatter across my bed, each piece tossed aside when deemed even worse than the one before it. Glancing at the clock I freeze realizing 30 minutes have gone by. And I’m still not dressed. I’ve gotten lost in the vicious cycle of my eating disorder thoughts yet again.

These getting-dressed-escapades that all too often fill my mornings are just one example of the vicious cycles I sometimes fall into. It’d be easy to fill an entire notebook with various ways my time, energy, and mind are sucked from the present moment into the vortex of my eating disorder thoughts. I can get so lost trying to pick out a meal from a menu I become deaf to all conversations around me. Choosing what to eat for breakfast can last hours if I am not careful. One time I lost 20 minutes in the yogurt aisle which ended in tears (and no yogurt). The mind games are excruciating. And it feels impossible to break the cycle.

Yet, learning to interrupt the vicious cycles is exactly what has to be done in order to heal and move on.

The vicious cycles of an eating disorder rob me of time, energy, and focus. Luckily, it is possible to interrupt these cycles.

What is a cycle?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a cycle as:

  1. an interval of time during which a sequence of a recurring succession of events or phenomena is completed
  2. a course or series of events or operations that recur regularly and usually lead back to the starting point
  3. a circular or spiral arrangement

Our lives, nature, and the world around us are filled with cycles. They are a part of our world, and they are not inherently bad. The moon goes through phases every month. Watching a seed sprout and grow into a plant that bears fruit is a magical way to be reminded of the gifts of cycles. The days get longer as Spring bleeds into Summer. Around and around we go. Sometimes there is comfort in the predictability of a cycle. Knowing that just as one phase ends, a new phase is only beginning.

What makes a cycle vicious?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vicious as:

  1. dangerously aggressive
  2. marked by violence or ferocity
  3. malicious, spiteful
  4. worsened by internal causes that reciprocally augment each other
  5. having the nature or quality of vice or immorality
  6. defective, faulty
  7. impure, noxious
Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are very often dangerous, aggressive, and violent. Irrational thoughts common in an eating disorder are usually defective (not true).

The worst part about these vicious thoughts and behaviors: they often feed into, or worsen each other. The more I stand in front of the mirror thinking negatively about my body, the worse I feel. And the worse I feel, the more negatively I see my body. Likewise, the more I argue in my head about what I should eat for breakfast, the more my anxiety increases. As my anxiety increases, I am less able to focus on my thoughts and make a decision about eating breakfast. And as my body begins feeling anxious, my nervous system becomes aroused, increasing the speed of my thoughts, increasing my heart rate, and increasing my anxiety. Which also creates knots in my stomach, making it even harder to consider eating. Sometimes the lump in my throat makes it feel like I can’t even swallow. It is a vicious cycle.

Once you understand that ED thoughts and behaviors often become worse as one increases the other, it is imperative to learn to interrupt this cycle.

Here are 5 Ways to Interrupt the Vicious Cycle of an Eating Disorder

1. Learn to Recognize the Vicious Cycle

Awareness is a critical first step to putting a halt to dangerous cycles. Recognizing what is happening and separating yourself from the harmful and obsessive thoughts is key to making a change. For many warriors, labeling the disordered thoughts or even naming their eating disorder makes this step easier.

Working to become the silent observer of what is actually happening in your mind helps create some space between your anxious thoughts and your wise self. Reconnecting with your body can help you become aware of when you are in the depths of a cycle as well. Focusing on sensations within your body can help you notice earlier when you’re in a downward spiral. Physical sensations such as a racing heart, tight chest, or rigid stomach can serve you as warning signals that it is time to take notice of your thoughts.

When you notice the cycle, call it out in your head. Label it for what it is. I like to think to myself, “That is just my ed voice. I do not have to listen to it.”

2. Slow Down Your Nervous System

Once you are aware of anxiety building within your body, a great place to interrupt the cycle starts with your body. By focusing on your breath you can actually begin to slow down your nervous system. It is much harder to think clearly when your central nervous system is aroused. Once in fight or flight mode, it is very difficult to talk your way out of a certain pattern of thinking. Instead, consciously putting attention on your breathing can slow down the system in your body. At a calmer state, it is much easier to think clearly.

3. Change Locations

Sometimes the best way to interrupt a cycle is by literally standing up and moving locations. If you suddenly realize you’ve been standing in the yogurt aisle at the grocery store in a panic for 20 minutes trying to pick the right kind, walk away from the dairy aisle and get something else. However, make sure you return to get your yogurt. If you have tried on ten outfits and don’t like any of them, do eeny meeny miny mo, or grab the most comfortable option, put it on, and leave your closet. If you’ve been staring at your pantry as the minutes tick by and you can’t find anything, take a five minute breather to go outside and get some air.

Please remember- the purpose of this suggestion is NOT to help you avoid the situation. You eventually need to return tot he yogurt aisle, the closet, of the pantry to make your choice. It is just sometimes helpful to change physical locations as a way to help your brain become less fixated on the current obsession.

4. Ask Questions

Sometimes getting curious about what is happening can help shift your mind into a more helpful place. Some of my favorite questions to ask are: “What is really going on right now? And what exactly am I trying to control?” Another great one to consider is: “What is happening in my life right now that may be upsetting me?” And, “What am I afraid of/trying to avoid right now?” When we get curious about our emotions we take the focus off of our bodies, and put it on our feelings underneath. It is really important in this step to ask questions from a neutral and curious place. Judging ourselves for or current situation only adds feelings of shame and guilt. And these emotions fuel the cycle.

5. Mindful Self Compassion

When all else fails, my go-to these days is to return to the practice of mindful self compassion. It’s easy for me to fall in the trap of adding more suffering to my struggle by feeling badly that I am struggling.

Criticizing myself for getting stuck in the cycle yet again only does one thing. It perpetuates the vicious cycle.

Instead of adding more pain to an already difficult moment, it helps to place a hand on my chest, take a deep breath, and consider what I would tell a beloved friend who was in the same situation. If that doesn’t work, I consider how I would speak to a little girl who was feeling the same way I am in that moment. I would literally never speak to a child the way I sometimes speak to myself.

Practicing mindful self-compassion can feel foreign when you’ve spent years (or even decades) stuck in an eating disorder. However, it offers a gentle way to shift your thinking and allow real healing to begin.

So warrior- where ever you are in your recovery journey remember this- it IS possible to interrupt the cycle and to heal your relationship with your food and body.

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