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Habits and rituals give us structure to our lives. They provide a safety blanket for us to hide under in order to keep ourselves safe when things get rough.
But what happens when mental illness causes use to develop unhealthy rituals and how do we begin to overcome them in recovery?
Eating disorders are primarily kept alive by anxiety and fear. Sometimes the only way to quiet the voices in our minds is to take part in comforting rituals such as the food rituals and body image rituals mentioned below. However, the rituals involved with eating disorders can very easily take over our lives. They’re draining, time-consuming and can dictate a number of things: what we do, where we go, time frames and how we feel!
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? How do we allow such small things to impact us so hugely?
What Is An Unhealthy Ritual?
Please note this is largely in relation to an eating disorder and is also not a definitive list.
From my experience with anorexia both during suffering and quasi-recovery, I would weigh myself every morning compulsively. If I couldn’t weigh myself then I didn’t feel ‘safe‘. If I didn’t know what my weight was, how could I possibly know if I should be allowed to eat? And if I had lost weight then surely I needed to keep going?
I used the numbers on the scale to define how I would go about my day and how I should feel about myself.
Towards the end of 2018, I was weighing myself in the morning and then again at night after fasting. It stripped my confidence completely from under me if I had gained even a gram.
This is one I still struggle with. In the absence of a scale I find myself body checking in many different ways. Sometimes I catch myself and gently bring myself to the present, telling myself I don’t need to do this. Other times it happens subconsciously. I’ve been body checking for years! I use photos to body check, video, my fingers, clothing–if it can be done I will find a way!
Cutting food into tiny pieces
In the early days of my anorexia during my teens I would rip food into tiny pieces. Now I deconstruct food where I can to eat them separate. That means eating each part of a sandwich or wrap using a fork and knife so that nothing is eaten together.
I wasn’t big on the measuring in my early anorexia experience, but this time something clicked within me. At one point I was weighing out cereal to exactly 30g or less, and even weighing things like fruit. I’ve since given this up completely and the only food I weigh is for my cat.
Eating at the same time, in the same place every day
When I was younger strict mealtimes were a thing I was obsessed with. If food wasn’t out by 5:30 pm in the evening I would have a meltdown. Now I’m much better with adapting to change because when you’re an adult life doesn’t always mean you can eat at the same time every day.
I try to stick to a routine as much as possible, and I know being out of routine can mean forgetting to eat / not having time to eat, and I struggle with that. I’m trying to remember to bring snacks with me everywhere I go. I’ve a reservoir of cereal bars, chocolate bars, and fruit in my backpack or handbag as often as I remember to do so. That and emergency sanitary towels and pain killers.
Do I have a problem with unhealthy rituals?
If a ritual or habit creates any of the following scenarios you may have an issue:
- The habit is so important that you can’t function without it.
- It’s hard to go for long periods without feeling an intense compulsion to perform that habit.
- You seem to be thinking about your habit for much of the day.
How can we challenge unhealthy food rituals and bad habits?
Here’s the ‘T’!
Habits are neuro-pathways in our brains. They need to be challenged and changed in order to form new, more healthy habits. The only way to do this is by repeating said good habits over and over until our brains say: “Oh! This is what we are meant to be doing now!” In the beginning, I used various ways to remind myself of my new healthier habit.
I started using this app in January 2019 and it honestly changed how I go about my mornings. It starts off gentle by adding in water and works it’s way up to eating breakfast and even exercising. Fabulous helped me establish a routine and habits because, as a perfectionist, I felt a sense of needing to keep the flow going. If I missed a day I felt like I was missing a link in the chain. The app can be free or you can choose to pay for extras.
This was a technique I was taught by a previous therapist. It’s meant to challenge us into switching up our small habits and stepping outside our comfort zones. These habits and rituals don’t have to start off being about food, and it’s actually better if they don’t. Instead, I focused on things like parking on a different side of the driveway or sleeping on the other side of the bed.
- Put your watch on a different arm.
- Wear different earrings.
- Sleep on the other side of the bed.
- Park somewhere else for a change.
- Wear odd socks instead of ones that match.
Once you challenge daily habits you can then start to take on food-related rituals.
There are so many other ways that you can challenge food-related rituals. You don’t have to use the methods above, I just found that they were the most helpful to me.
If you have any other tips or tricks for banishing the ritualistic gremlins feel free to tweet me or leave them in the comments below!
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