Re-defining Eating Disorder Symptoms (The Secondary Symptoms)

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Earlier I wrote this article about re-defining the primary symptoms of eating disorders. After covering the “primary” or“classic” symptoms of eating disorders, I’d like to look at some of the overlooked or secondary symptoms. These are behaviours that the eating disorder has us do, but aren’t always considered symptoms. These are little ways that the eating disorder controls the sufferer and helps the disorder keep hold, even when the primary symptoms are under control. I find that by classifying these as secondary symptoms, I am much more accountable for my actions.

Body Checking There are the obvious forms of body checking; weighing, measuring, trying on old clothes, staring at the mirror and then there are the more subtle forms; talking about your body with others (or talking about other people’s bodies and comparing them to your own), direct comparison of your body to another person’s (including clothing sizes), using jewellery (bracelets or rings) to judge body size, concentrating on different parts of your body and analyzing them in your mind, glancing at the mirrors in store fronts and car windows to judge your body. Body checking is VERY hard for me, as it appears everywhere. The more you are aware of the little things you do to body check, the more glaring a problem it becomes, and the easier it will be to diminish those actions in your everyday life. Basically, any time you are thinking about, analyzing, criticizing or comparing your body – you are body checking.

Nutrient Tracking Any form of nutrient tracking is a symptom, regardless of your motivations. Calories, grams of fat carbs or protein – it is all a symptom. If you must track your meals for the purposes of reporting your intake to your treatment team, try to keep numbers out of it – yes, even in your own mind. Mentally tracking, adding up or accessing the calorie counts to food is also a symptom that must be reduced. Personally, I started tracking my calories while in recovery because I needed my treatment team to have a better idea of what and how much I was eating – I realize now that this was a trick to get me roped back into my disorder and have since stopped. As said above, regardless of your motivations or intentions – this is ALWAYS a bad idea.

Habits, Rituals and Routines – These are sometimes large and obvious or can be very subtle. Try to identify any rituals you may have that are keeping you stuck. For instance, I used to eat directly when I got home from work, when I was worked up and anxious. This led me to feel I had eaten too much and purge. When purging at night, I would go through a series of movements leading up to the event (yes, this includes tying hair back or gathering supplies). I always did the same thing on weigh days, ate the same breakfast and wore the same clothes (yes, for almost 5 years I wore the same clothes to treatment or doctors appointments, regardless of how they fit or the weather outside). Symptoms such as making food for other people that you won’t eat, always eating one food group on your plate before another, eating with “safe foods” and food avoidance can fit in this category too.

Trying to Maintain Control – This is a symptom that does not always mean maintaining control over your eating. Sometimes trying to maintain control in your life bleeds over into your eating disorder, strengthening it and holding you in it’s grip. No one can control everything in their lives, and often when things go wrong those of us with eating disorders turn to food as a way to cope. Trying to relinquish control over things not related to food can help ease the power your disorder has over your life. Personally, I stopped taking my birth control pills. This was a very personal decision that I talked over with my husband and doctors. I wanted to give my body a year to try and regulate itself and operate without synthetic hormones before trying to conceive. All throughout my disorder I was on BCPs so my body never really got a chance to figure itself out. What struck me was the resistance my disorder displayed when faced with this decision I made. I didn’t want to give up the control the pills gave me over my periods, fluid retention, and thereby control of my weight but by going off of them I realized that I could trust my body to take care of itself – it didn’t need my help.

Self-Triggering – This is a hard one, because it’s something people with eating disorders rarely admit to doing. Our loved ones and friends wouldn’t understand why we could possibly want to trigger ourselves and make out eating disorder come to the forefront of our minds, but it is a common occurrence that when acknowledged and dealt with can help to make your life in recovery easier. This includes looking at photos of thin people, reading magazine and tabloid covers in the checkout line, purposely body checking or nutrient tracking, reading Eating Disorder books or watching documentaries about the illness, exposing yourself to potentially dangerous and triggering situations, spending time with people who trigger you, I could go on and on. Whenever you do something that you know you shouldn’t do, this is self-triggering. Personally I struggle most with spending time with or looking at pictures of friends who are very thin, or looking at photos of myself when I was ill.


So, what do you think ?