Recovery actions, recovery thinking

My friend Nancy wrote a short blog post about how recovery actions lead to recovery thinking. The title of the blog post was what I was trying to get at here, but Nancy said it much more clearly and succinctly.

It's once of the great myths of ED recovery. Lots of us think that if we can figure out why we're sick, why we're acting the way we are, then we can stop the behaviors. It's not a ridiculous assumption. We like to think that we're rational and logical, and that if we understand just how stupid/pointless/dangerous the ED is, we'll quit.

Remember that scene in Brokeback Mountain where he was like "I can't quit you"?

That's sort of like the ED.

EDs aren't rational and logical. The parts of the brain that drive fear and compulsion kick in way before conscious cognition. It's milliseconds, but on Brain Time, that's quite a while. So even when your conscious brain knows damn well that the eating disorder isn't exactly what you should be doing with your life, you still do it. The ED response becomes instinctive, reflexive. This isn't to say that you have absolutely zero control over whether or not you use behaviors, because that's not true, either. It's just that behavior patterns can become very ingrained, and no amount of thinking can erase that.

Like my old psychiatrist said: You can't think your way out of a disorder that you behaved your way into. {{Yes, I know that EDs have lots of cognitive components, but still...}}

What I learned the hard way was that the only way to change my thinking was to change my behaviors and NOT the other way around. That I didn't have to like recovery behaviors, I didn't have to want to use them, I could scream, howl, protest, and whine, I could be required to do them, but what really mattered was that I did them. The more I acted like a person in recovery, the more I thought like a person in recovery.

It's not that my ED thoughts are gone--they're not--but the recovery behaviors are much more reflexive now. Recovery isn't as much effort.

If there's one phrase that I think would be helpful to repeat, it's the title of that blog post: Recovery actions lead to recovery thinking.

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rachel said...

this is so true. the therapist i worked with during my last inpatient stay would always say, "you got in by doing, you'll get out by doing", and that's really stuck with me. you have to push yourself through the actions even when they don't feel right, or else they never will.

hm said...

"You can't think your way out of a disorder that you behaved your way into." Awesome, logical statement- one that makes total sense even to the disordered brain. :)

Thanks for this post. I needed to hear it.

Jess said...

Yup. Another thing I lived by, especially in the beginning of my recovery journey, was "if it feels like crap, you're doing it right." Recovery is hard work, you're actively defying everything your eating disorder wants, so if it's screaming in protest, chances are you're on the right track! lol

extralongtail said...

Another great post, Carrie :)

As a logical thinker, I was certain, 6 years ago (when I started recovery 'for real'), that if I could understand the mechanism of my AN, that I could get better. Moreover, I truly believed that in order to get better, it was necessary that I did understand the mechanism....

My psychiatrist informed me that it doesn't work that way, and that I had to practise new behaviours in order to get better. That meant eating much more and foregoing urges to exercise.

Initially it all felt sooooo wrong; so wrong that I felt VERY distressed. There was that awful fight between my logical mind and my anorexic mind. I knew I needed to eat, but I hated the distress associated with eating.

The more we actually do healthy behaviours, the easier it is to repeat these behaviours and the anxiety associated with doing them lessens. The only times I find it really difficult to eat well nowadays are when I feel very anxious, or my mood drops.

I have had to accept anxiety and mood swings as being part of me. They were present before I ever developed AN and didn't develop as a consequence of living with AN. But I do not have to give in to urges to restrict.

tess said...

a very insightful post of yours, thank you! also, I believe that as scary as certain actions may seem at first, if we DO step over the eating disorder and do those actions all the same, we will slowly get used to them and adjust. and over time, they won't seem all that scary anymore.


Bloody brilliant.

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Anonymous said...

Amen! This has been exactly my experience.

L.C said...

Thank you! I needed this today.

Brittnie said...

SO SO TRUE. You said ...

"Like my old psychiatrist said: You can't think your way out of a disorder that you behaved your way into."..... and

"What I learned the hard way was that the only way to change my thinking was to change my behaviors and NOT the other way around."

This is exactly my experience when I decided to recover from anorexia. The only way I was going to make any change was to just make one healthy behavior choice after another and then eventually my thoughts/thinking/mental aspects caught up with me.

Great post!

Abby said...

Thank you, as always, for giving me just what I needed to hear. Again.

I find it especially difficult seeing as many of the "behaviors" I have to implement--eating more, exercising less, etc.--run completely contradictory to the behaviors that many other people are going after--exercise more, eat less. It can be so easy to listen to those people instead of the rational voice in my head that knows I need to make choices, not excuses, that benefit where I am right now.

There's no amount of thinking that can replace effective action. Great reminder.

Anonymous said...

Thank you - boy did I ever need to read this today.

Angela E. Gambrel said...

So true. I have spent years trying to figure out *why* I developed an eating disorder until my therapist finally convinced me that it really doesn't matter. Instead, I need to eat to live and that healing comes by acting recovered, i.e. eating and not self-harming and engaging in life. The more I *act* recovered, the more I feel recovered.

My problem is that I always intellectualize everything! By doing this, I avoid both the emotions underlying the eating disorder and doing the recovery work. I allow the thoughts I feel to fuel my actions (pardon the pun.)

And I used to think the idea that "food is medicine" was a load of crap. But it is! When I eat less, the eating disorder thoughts creep in. When I eat more, I feel better more and hence I act more recovered. Does any of this make sense?

For example, I have been under stress the last few days and therefore my eating has slipped. This morning I realized that some eating disorder thoughts are beginning to creep back in. Can I *think* all this away? No. But I can make myself eat and know that will help clear the thoughts.

Great post!

Angela E. Gambrel said...

P.S. "EDs aren't rational and logical."

Very true!

Sarah said...

Great post Carrie! Very well said.

Agrace12 said...

Great post. I needed this today. I am struggling with alot of anxiety with recovery right now. I am doing better with my meal plan, but feeling terrible about it. I need to remind myself that it can feel worse before it gets better...but it will get better. Thanks for all you do!

Viviankiki said...

Can I join in on the psych catchphrases: "fake it till you make it" ... one day you might not have to 'fake it' anymore

Sarah said...

I was actually explaining this concept to a client this week who asked if it was normal to still be struggling with ED thoughts after just a few months of treatment, yet years and years of ED behaviors. Recovery actions do lead to more recovery based thinking. Great post! Very well said.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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