I recently made a couple of podcast episodes on my podcast series, 'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery', about what compulsive exercise and movement is and why it is important to learn the skills of rest and relaxation in eating disorder recovery.
Following those episodes, I was asked by a couple of listeners to make an episode with some tools and tips to help put the need to rest, relax and overcome those intense movement compulsions into practice. The episode has just been released on my podcast, so please have a listen to it, but because it does include a number of practical tips, I decided to also create a written post for the episode as it might be easier for you to refer back to.
Resting and relaxing is a skill and when you have had an eating disorder for years or even decades with strong exercise and movement compulsions attached, then it is not just learning a new skill in being able to rest and relax... it is overcoming huge fear reactions when you do rest and it is changing very ingrained habits.
But even if it was just a new skill to learn, without the additional fear creating anxiety, panic and other intense emotions and without the habit change complications, skill learning in itself does feel clunky and wrong and hard on the brain.
However, in eating disorder recovery, unless you do put yourself through the process of allowing yourself to rest and relax, while still eating enough food (i.e. lots!), then you won't recover. Sadly, it is as simple as that.
Below then are the tools and tips that I have put together of things to help you with this incredibly difficult process of learning to rest and relax. Nothing will completely take away the emotional response, the fear response or the amount of mental focus you will need, but these tools might just help reduce those responses so that you can keep yourself on course to push through with resting, despite the powerful urges to move.
Tools to Help You Learn To Rest & Relax in Recovery
Eating enough food... and by enough, I mean A LOT!
This is the tip your eating disorder is going to get mad about... that eating a lot of food in itself will make all the difference to your movement compulsions. I found that to be true in my case and I know others for whom the same is also very definitely true.
If we bring an eating disorder back to being an evolutionary flee from famine response which is the theory of eating disorders that makes the most sense to me in so many ways, then eating a huge amount of food being the one key factor that will almost 'switch off' those urges to keep moving makes absolute sense.
Let's dig a little deeper here.... Your brain at the moment believes that there is not enough food in your environment for you to be safe to stop and rest and eat where you are because you are not eating enough (and remember, evolutionary brain does not understand why you are not eating enough, it just knows there is not enough food coming in!). Therefore, your brain believes food is scarce in your current environment so it needs to push you to move away from this environment and get to somewhere that there is food available in enough quantities for it to be safe to stop there, rest and eat it for a while to restore.
This response explains why people who are very malnourished and below their set point weight (and I'm not talking BMI here!), who are restricting their intake to a large degree, are still able by some miracle of Mother Nature to keep moving, exercising and existing on so little. But if they start consistently eating enough (and this often takes a heck of a lot of food consistently), then their brain understands it can stop pushing this poor underresourced body to keep moving and hunting and the brain learns it is safe to let their human know just how depleted and exhausted they truly are.
And it is at this point, when you have been eating a lot of food consistently for a period of time that you will find that your brain will start to switch off that constant drive to make you keep moving and that is when you will likely also feel more exhausted than you have before and when your hunger will also kick in (which you have to respond to by the way!).
Therefore, tip number one really does have to be eating huge amounts of food, no matter what the fear says, no matter that your disorder is telling you that if you eat a huge amount more, it will make you exercise even more to compensate. Just do it anyway. Eat large amounts, use more of the tips below to keep as sedentary as possible and with enough consistency, you might just find that those urges and compulsions to keep moving lessen of their own accord.
Make a Sedentary Plan!
In the early stages of trying to make yourself rest more in recovery, it can help to create a plan for what you will do during the times of the day that you are usually most active, of things that are sedentary and will distract you…. And, be specific with this at first.
Lay out times for the day so that you can keep yourself accountable and so that you know, for example, that at 11am you will be sitting down to phone your mum (with snacks in hand) and at 3pm you will be watching the next episode of Gilmore Girls on Netflix with a tub of ice cream etc... (I choose Gilmore Girls as that's what I watched in recovery but you can choose something more suited to you!).
It is true that ultimately in recovery you need to be accountable to yourself but when in recovery, just being accountable to yourself is often not sufficient because your brain has a powerful eating disorder at the moment telling you that it is actually really ok to go on long walks or to be vacuuming the house every day and that eating disorder can be very believable if you don't have external validation that those thoughts are not true.
Therefore, I would advise you to be accountable to someone, whether that is a family member, friend, coach or other professional. Have someone apart from yourself that you have to be honest with about what movement you are doing or have done as it can help to make the need to stop the movement real, make stopping feel more important and help you remember why you are doing this.
Feet off the Floor Challenge!
This is a great game to play with yourself in recovery... the feet off the floor challenge.
The object of the game is to keep your feet off the floor entirely for as much of the day as you possibly can. And the only times you are allowed to have your feet touching the ground is if you are walking to the kitchen to get food or back to the couch / bed with food.... Trips to the bathroom are also allowed, as long as you are only going when you definitely need to go and not just as an excuse to get up and move about!
Making recovery a game in this way can take the seriousness out of it a little and might also help reduce the anxiety around it. Of course, it should go without saying that while sitting / lying without your feet on the floor, there should be no other sneaky forms of exercise / movement happening!
Physiological Sighs to Help with Anxiety
We have all been told or told others to 'just breathe' when feeling anxious or scared. However, physiological sighs are a breathing technique that neuroscientists have now found are one of the quickest ways to bring the body out of a stress response when afraid and worth trying in recovery when making yourself rest more and feeling anxious about doing so.
Physiological sighs are two quick inhalations (through the nose) followed by a slower exhalation (through the mouth). If you have ever seen a child crying then you will see them do this as they reach a peak and start to calm down (you probably have experience of doing it automatically yourself).
Two or three deliberate physiological sighs are thought to be one of the fastest ways to return the body to 'normal' from a stressed and anxious state - worth a try!
Respond To Your Hunger
This tip is similar to the first one, i.e. EAT, but for different reasons.
Very often with an eating disorder, movement, exercise and keeping busy has become a learnt response to block out hunger signals, so the restriction was easier because you blocked out the signals from your body telling you that you were actually hungry.
When you do start to rest again and your body comes out of that high alert state where you have adrenaline and cortisol racing around blocking your hunger signals, you are likely to start to feel the hunger signals that were always there but that you could not recognise before. When this happens, it is really important that you respond to those hunger signals and eat, no matter how much food it takes to fulfil that hunger.
By eating and responding to the hunger when it strikes (and it might be extreme when it does), you will make the process a little less miserable for yourself, because sitting and resting is really hard and torturous when you are also hungry and not letting yourself eat. And the other big benefit of eating when the hunger strikes as you are resting, is that it will be rewiring those old disordered habits of moving to blunt the hunger and as a means to restrict.
It is always great to have someone else to reassure us when we are anxious and doing hard things, but sometimes that person is not there and it is just as important (if not more so) to be able to reassure yourself when you are anxious and doing something hard.
So, tell yourself that you are doing the right thing by resting and relaxing, even if you don't believe it at first. Just keep reassuring yourself and sometimes it can be more effective if you talk to yourself in the third person to do that, for example, I might say to myself, "Helly, you are resting and relaxing because this is your future and your recovery and you want a future in which you can sit and rest and relax whenever you like. Helly, you are a recovery superstar!". Yes, I know it sounds nuts to speak to yourself in that way but it will help with the anxiety and with the rewiring process as it highlights to your brain that this new behaviour is safe and is important.
Food Helps Anxiety
Did you really think that more food was not on the agenda?
Yep - food helps anxiety, even in eating disorder recovery!
I can't count how many times people in recovery have said to me that when their anxiety gets high, if they eat something scary in that moment, their anxiety comes right down again. And that is despite a brain telling them before they put more food in their mouth that the oppositie will be true and a brain telling them that if they eat more now, they will pay for it later!
This also makes sense from a neuroscience perspective... A brain in high alert does not believe it is safe to sit and eat. If you do sit and eat, it demonstrates to your brain that actually it is safe to sit here and eat and that then allows your brain to understand that the fear response was never necessary and it's safe right here and now, so it can stop sending you signals telling you that something devastating is about to happen!
Therefore, when you get heightened anxiety, as you are making yourself sit and rest, use food to alleviate it and make that food something worthwhile, something that you are really scared of because the more you do, the easier it will be and that anxiety will reduce before you know it.
During my recovery when trying to overcome the movement compulsions, I put myself into a form of lockdown... and you have to remember this was pre-pandemic and before the term lockdown had the connotations it has now! However, I still advocate that putting yourself into a form of lockdown to help overcome those urges to exercise and move can be a great tool.
Build a nest or a really comfortable space in your home that is cosy and inviting and maybe surround it with notes for yourself too on, 'this is why I am not moving from here!'. If you live with others then tell them that you are in rest mode and not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency or they risk their head being bitten off!
If the weather is good then I would also close the curtains. In my case, I had to hunker down during the summer and so there were days I would pretend the outside world wasn’t there and I kept the curtains closed to also block out the good weather and pretend it was raining and dark out.
Then when in lockdown, surround yourself with food in your nest and just let yourself rest and eat and heal.
Let the Emotions In
As you go through this recovery process, it is more than likely that your emotions will take you on a rollercoaster ride. All I can advise you to do is to let the emotions in. You might want to scream and cry. You might be really irritable and angry and unfortunately you do have to go through this to come out the other side. It is awful and it feels like it will never end when you are in it but it will end and you will get through it!
Have the tissues ready, warn people you might not always be at your best and that you might be snappy for no reason for a while and then ride with it. It is ok to ask for hugs, it is not ok to exercise or restrict to numb it!
As another way to deal with the emotions as they arise in recovery and when trying to rest, listening to music can be valuable. I listened to a lot of music in this process, whether loud songs if angry or sad songs when I was very low. When you are sobbing to sad music, it is hard to also keep moving and doing and I believe it can help with some emotional processing too.
A Dirty House is OK
If you use housework or gardening as a means to keep moving and busy then let it go. Accept that your house might get dirty and that is normal in a lot of homes! You do not need to do the household chores as often as you think you do and in recovery you should be avoiding them as much as possible to rewire that need to move. Let other people do it for you - it might not be up to your standard but that is something else to accept and chill out about!
Eradicate other Ways You Find to Move & Exercise
At the beginning of this process, sit down and identify all the other things you do as an excuse to move and exercise and problem solve how you will address them.
Take public transport or the car and don’t walk or cycle.
Get a dog walker.
Get a gardener if you have to.
Park in the car park space nearest to the door of the supermarket.
Only go down the aisles you need in the supermarket so you are not walking about the shop just for the sake of it.
Use the dishwasher instead of washing up because it all matters!
And yes, some of these things mean spending a bit more money at the moment but this is your health and recovered life you are investing in and that has to be worth it to not live in the chains of the illness for any longer.
Ditch the Fitbit!
If you have any exercise trackers or fitbits then please just throw them away or sell them. They are not at all needed. Then aim to take as few steps as possible every day but you don't need to track this!
Get Out to Coffee Shops
In recovery, coffee shops can be invaluable as a means to get out the house in a recovery positive way. Find a local coffee shop where you can go and get out the house but drive there, order huge calorific drinks and food products that terrify you and sit and enjoy being around people and relaxing with food. This also helps your brain understand that eating and drinking in coffee shops, sitting while you do is a very normal human behaviour! Then when you are done in first coffee shop, go to the next. Keep sitting and keep eating.
Sit Outside in Nature if You Can Just Do That!
Going to sit and relax outside somewhere on a nice day is great, if you know you can just go and sit somewhere. But if it is going to mean you walk around for 3 hours and sit for 10 minutes then please don’t risk it yet and perhaps aim for lockdown mode first.
Let Other People Do What They Are Doing & You Do You
For those of you with family or other people you live with or spend a lot of time with, I know that you will want to be able to do what they are doing. However, if they have decided to go for a nice family walk or the kids have a swimming trip planned, you have to remind yourself that at this point in time, you can't join them in the movement side of whatever they are doing. This is a real illness you are aiming to recover from and when you do, you can choose whether to go on these activities, but right now, treat this like any other serious illness (which it is) and follow your treatment (resting), no matter what. Family and friends would understand if you had cancer or a broken leg and couldn't go for the family walk at the moment and they will understand this too (or if I they don't, do what is right for your recovery anyway!).
What Would I Do If....
Ask yourself, if this was my last day on this planet, would I spend it moving about compulsively like a demon? I very much doubt it. Then do what you would do and rest and relax because it really wouldn't matter and the sad truth is that even though it isn’t your last day on this planet (I hope not anyway!), it still just doesn’t matter if you sit and rest for the remainder of your many days left here on planet earth because you will likely be healthier and happier for it.
These last points are added at the end because although they are no less important, these are the things that you will all very likely have already thought of or seen advised before:
Using methods of distraction when you are sitting and resting. Examples are crafts, colouring, journaling… anything that is mindless as you will need your full mental focus for recovery, but mindless things that will keep you occupied in a less stressful way can be invaluable. I used journalling a lot in recovery and it helped me stay sitting as I was writing, as well as process what I was experiencing.
The other commonly advised tool is of course mindfulness or meditation if that works for you. I have always struggled to get into mindfulness but it is an incredibly powerful tool if you can use it.
So that the list of some tools to help your learn to rest and relax in eating disorder recovery. Use as many as you can, if not all of them at different stages. The movement compulsions can be incredibly hard to overcome and I never believed I would ever overcome it, but I did and I believe you can too.