• Katrina Wilson M.A. RPC

Learning to tolerate distress in recovery

Author: Katrina Wilson M.A. RPC


Woman holding a kitten

Clients often come to Westwind or participate in our online programming expecting to start feeling better right away – free from anxiety, guilt, and behaviors- which is a common misconception of the recovery process. This is a lovely idea, but unfortunately not a realistic one! Holding onto this vision of recovery often leaves people feeling like they aren’t doing it right, that they’re not getting better, and can contribute to feelings of defeat and hopelessness. While the long-term goal of recovery is to feel better and be able to live your life the way you truly want to, the short-term goal of recovery is actually to be able to sit with and tolerate the distress and discomfort that the eating disorder creates when you choose recovery actions. This bubble unfortunately gets burst when people actually start working through the recovery process.


At the beginning of recovery, going against the eating disorder often evokes guilt, anxiety, fear, shame, physical discomfort, and a whole host of other difficult emotions. This is a normal part of the process, and it means you are taking a stand against the eating disorder and engaging in positive recovery actions. Building strength and resilience in recovery involves invoking this distress on purpose and helping yourself through it. Doing this helps build resiliency against the eating disorder backlash, and gives you the strength to continue pushing yourself in recovery.


So what does tolerating the distress caused by the eating disorder mean? There are many ways to help yourself through distress and discomfort – here are a few that our clients have found helpful:


1. Start with understanding and accepting that the recovery action you are choosing to take will likely create some form of distress. Being able to anticipate this ahead of time can make the distress feel more manageable, as it won’t catch you off guard or surprise you.


2. Anticipating the distress means you can set yourself up for success by planning ahead. Knowing the eating disorder will evoke guilt after a meal means you can set up a phone date with a friend, have an activity already in mind to engage in, or even tell someone ahead of time that you will be struggling so they are ready to support you.


3. Purposeful distraction can be incredibly helpful so that you don’t get caught up in the feelings and ruminate on the thoughts the ED is popping. Doing something mindful or mindless can give the thoughts and feelings space to come and go, and people often find that the distress dissipates with time.


4. Self-soothing involves recognizing that you are in distress, and choosing words and actions that are kind, understanding, and even compassionate towards what you are going through. This can involve listening to enjoyable music, going outside, making your environment more enjoyable with candles, snuggling in a blanket – focusing on engaging the senses in a calming way.


5. Reaching out for support, whether to talk through what is happening or to connect around something completely different, can be a helpful way to tolerate distress. Sometimes you need to voice it and have someone just listen, and other times hearing about another’s day can help refocus your attention. It is important to be mindful of who can help you in a moment of distress and how they can help you, and choosing who you go to for support wisely.


6. Remind yourself of your “recovery whys”. You are choosing to move away from the eating disorder for a reason, and the distress you are experiencing isn’t for nothing. Write out a list of why you are choosing to engage in recovery despite the distress, so that you can turn to it when you are in a moment of struggle as a reminder.


Distress is a normal part of the recovery process, and it isn’t something to avoid or shy away from. Moving into distress on purpose will strengthen your recovery and your ability to disobey the eating disorder. If you are feeling distress, you are doing it right!