Many people who have recovered from anorexia nervosa (AN) continue to exhibit anxiety, depression, moodiness, perfectionism, or other psychological issues. In fact, the anxious personality style that persists after full recovery is the norm, rather than the exception. Walter Kaye’s research shows that 60-70% of people with histories of AN have anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic, rigid, harm-avoidant personality traits that were present before AN and persist after recovery. These traits are largely genetic and neurobiological in origin.
Individuals who have experienced AN, regardless of how long it has been since their most recent episode, and regardless of how fully recovered they are, need to be mindful of managing their underlying predisposition. For those with histories of AN, having an anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic personality style combined with a biologically-driven tendency to restrict food creates the perfect storm for relapse. Even if anorexia nervosa never returns, these individuals are at greater risk of developing bulimia nervosa and of experiencing depression, anxiety, and related disorders.
Here are some basic guidelines for continued healing after the crisis of AN blows over:
1. Get evaluated for an accurate target weight
You may be “weight-restored” according to your therapist, nutritionist, or doctor. But what exactly does that mean? Are you really at YOUR ideal body weight?
The vast majority of doctors, nutritionists, and therapists tend to set target weights too low. There are several reasons for this: overblown concern about the obesity epidemic, their own personal beliefs about the value of thinness, ignorance of the research on appropriate target weight and recovery from eating disorders, and concern about upsetting patients who negotiate for lower weights. Whatever their motive, the common practice of setting target weights too low perpetuates the illness, increases risk of relapse, and holds most patients in a state of semi-recovery.
In order to recover fully, you need to get to YOUR body’s ideal weight, which has nothing to do with what’s “on the charts.” If you have a biological predisposition to AN, being even 5 pounds below YOUR optimal weight can trigger symptoms of anxiety, obsessiveness, depression, and irritability. The best way to determine your accurate target weight is to obtain copies of your historic growth charts and schedule an appointment with a physician who is knowledgeable about eating disorders. Your physician can examine your historic growth charts and use them to make an educated guess of where your weight would be if you had never developed an eating disorder.
Your ideal weight is not a “magic number;” it is a range of approximately 5-10 pounds at which your body feels good and functions optimally. If you are at your ideal weight, you should be getting regular menstrual periods without taking birth control pills. Your body will gravitate towards your ideal weight range when you are eating normally without restriction and exercising regularly. Research has shown that the vast majority of young adults with AN must maintain a body mass index (BMI) of at least 20 in order for their brain and body to recover fully. Many people require higher BMI’s than that, depending on their bone structure, muscularity, build, and genetics. Many parents find that their child’s last lingering psychological symptoms disappear she gains those last five pounds and returns to her historic growth curve.
2. Get evaluated and treated for co-morbid conditions
Co-morbid diagnoses which are made while a patient is underweight, re-feeding, or actively bingeing and purging are notoriously inaccurate. Most acutely ill patients with eating disorders exhibit symptoms of major depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but in many cases these symptoms are the direct effects of a malnourished, chaotically nourished, or re-feeding brain. Giving a false diagnosis is worthless at best and counterproductive at worst. It does not make sense, medically or practically or financially, to provide a patient with a medication or a psychological treatment when her symptoms are best addressed through full nutrition.
However, not all psychological symptoms disappear with weight restoration. The truth is that many people with a history of AN have co-morbid psychological disorders which exist independently of their eating disorder. The most common disorders which co-occur with AN are OCD, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, ADHD, and Asperger’s syndrome. Every eating disorder patient should be evaluated for co-morbid disorders after they have reached and maintained their ideal body weight for several months.
If you are diagnosed with another psychological disorder, it is important to get treatment for it. Evidence-based psychological treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical-Behavior Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, are helpful in treating a wide variety of psychological problems. Psychotropic medication may also be included as an adjunct to psychological treatment.
3. Create a relapse prevention plan which involves family, friends, and clinicians
Unfortunately, with eating disorders, relapse is the norm rather than the exception. Therefore, relapse prevention planning is crucial. The best relapse prevention plans are those that involve not only the patient but also her friends, family, and clinicians.
Central to developing a relapse prevention plan is a thorough understanding of the brain-disease model of mental illness. If you were therapized to believe that your eating disorder was the result of striving to be thin, a need for control, or family dysfunction, you are in for a rude awakening several years from now when relapse rears its ugly head. The problem with these myths about etiology (in addition to being false) is that they presume that, once “underling issues” have been addressed, relapse is no longer a possibility. Not true. Not by a long shot.
I have worked with many teenagers who have sworn that they would never develop AN again because they will never go on a diet. This is great, but the problem is that AN can creep back into a person’s life if she becomes stressed or malnourished for any reason. A nasty breakup, a move across the country, a stressful job, a bout with the stomach flu, an episode of depression, or a major surgery – any of these situations can trigger a relapse. One need not intentionally diet in order to fall back into AN.
Developing a relapse prevention plan is a three-step process:
A.) In collaboration with your loved ones and clinicians, generate a written list of early signs of relapse. Some of these signs may first be noticeable to those around you, before you even realize that there is a problem. This is why it is important to have other people involved.
B.) Decide what you will do to cope with any signs of impending relapse so that you can nip them in the bud before they become problematic. Also, decide what your loved ones can do to help if they notice these signs.
C.) Write out the entire plan, including signs of relapse and exactly what to do if said signs occur. Distribute copies of this plan to your family members, closest friends, and clinicians.
4. Learn to manage your personality style so that it works for you
We cannot change our basic personality style. Some people are simply “wired” to be more anxious, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. We’ve evolved this way for good reason. Many people who are very successful in life have anxious personality styles – their drive, conscientiousness, and attention to detail allow them to excel in school, sports, and various careers.
Every personality style has its benefits and its liabilities. People who are disorganized and scatterbrained and have difficulty learning in traditional ways can be extremely gifted artists. People with argumentative natures or short tempers can channel that passion into a career in law, or become champion boxers. People with ADHD may not be well-suited for a dull desk job that requires hours of concentration, but thrive in an active job that requires multitasking, creativity, and interacting with many different people.
Become aware of what your personality style is and how it manifests. Accept and embrace your natural temperament. Identify the ways in which your personality style benefits you or others, and structure your life accordingly. Identify the ways in which your personality style works against you, or prevents you from achieving your goals, or interferes with your wellbeing. Do whatever you can to learn to manage these vulnerabilities.
People with anxious personality styles do best when they have plenty of sleep (8-9 hours per night) and plenty of exercise (approximately 1 hour per day). In addition to cardiovascular exercise to relieve pent-up stress and anxiety, I recommend incorporating a regular yoga practice into your weekly routine to help release tension and develop mind-body awareness. Those with anxious personalities should limit caffeine to one cup per day and eat balanced meals throughout the day to stabilize blood sugar, which in turn helps to stabilize mood. People who are prone to stress benefit greatly from having some personal down time each day to relax and decompress. Bubble baths, reading for pleasure, meditation, and journaling are all good ways to unwind. If you are prone to anxiety, do whatever you can to simplify your life. Eliminate unnecessary commitments. Don’t let yourself get overscheduled. Learn to say no!
Finally, develop skills to cope with anxiety. Self-help books such as The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook and The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook are helpful for those who are motivated to work through their issues on their own. Structured, evidence-based therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, focus on building skills to tackle the every day challenges of life.
5. Get your life back on track
Eating disorders are completely disruptive to every facet of your life. They cause conflict and tension within your family; they alienate you from your friends; they cause you to miss school or work while you seek treatment; they wreck your body and ravage your brain; they change your fundamental view of who you are and what you want from life. It may take many months or even years to recover from all this damage.
Once the storm has passed, it is very important for you to rebuild your relationships with family members and friends, or to make new friends if your old ones are no longer in the picture. You may need to get involved in different activities if your old ones were triggering your disorder. You may discover that all of your goals and strivings were not yours at all, but ED’s. Your new life, post-recovery, may feel foreign, forced, or fake. This experience can be disillusioning, confusing, and deflating.
Now is the time to ask yourself: Who are you, now that ED has been kicked to the curb? What are you about? What do you want from life? If you have recovered from your eating disorder and addressed steps 1-4 listed above, you are ready to answer these questions genuinely and embark on your new, healthy, meaningful, fulfilling life.