How Do You Know If It’s an Eating Disorder Behavior?

In the eating disorder treatment world, there’s this term, “eating disorder behavior” that’s often abbreviated to “EDB.” While it includes more obvious symptoms that come to mind when thinking about an eating disorder, like restricting or purging, it also includes ritual behaviors. These rituals are what “EDB” most often refers to in this setting.

Due to the nature of an eating disorder, EDBs become so engrained in the day-to-day life of someone struggling with an eating disorder, that they become what seem like normal habits. When undergoing treatment, these behaviors and rituals are challenged head-on during experiential therapy.

Those that I have worked with in treatment often ask, “Is this an EDB?” Or they debate about how normal a certain habit is in the popular culture, thus, it cannot be an EDB.

One way we would test whether certain actions were EDBs or not was to see what came up when asked to not engage in the ritual or behavior. If a huge amount of resistance, discomfort, or rebellion appeared, there was a good chance the eating disorder had something to do with it.

For example, imagine you, someone who has never struggled with an eating disorder (or mental illness that may impair this example), were using a knife and fork to eat a sandwich. If I were to ask you to try eating the sandwich with your hands instead, most likely you would look at me funny, maybe ask me why, but then you’d say something like, “Well of course I could… it’s a little messy, but sure.” You might not prefer it, but it would be an acceptable thing to do.

Now, for someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, this is a completely different scenario. If this was one of their rituals of choice, they would meet it with a huge amount of pushback. The difference between the two reactions highlights that this behavior is an EDB in the second instance.

The tl;dr of this post is this: any behavior can be an EDB.

Sure, we could come up with a decent list of behaviors that are most commonly occurring, but when it comes to behaviors, anything could serve as a coping mechanism. That’s what EDBs are, essentially, learned habitual coping mechanisms.

When you wonder if one of your eating rituals is an eating disorder behavior, ask yourself how comfortable you would be with doing it a different way. If there isn’t much drama going on in your mind other than slight discomfort or unfamiliarity, then it probably isn’t.

If you find that you adamantly prefer a specific ritual and deeply do not want to change it, try to dive into those feelings more. What is this behavior doing for you? How is it serving you? Where did it originate? Does it help your eating disorder achieve some of its overarching goals? This is where working with a psychotherapist can be extremely helpful. It takes a huge dose of insight to be able to see the answers to these questions, especially for engrained habits that your eating disorder loves and your brain is so used to doing. We all need external voices to point out what we’re so used to doing without realizing it.

It’s also eye-opening to eat with someone who knows what common EDBs look like. You might think you don’t have any rituals, but as soon as someone eats with you, they may notice that you’re doing something that could be playing into your eating disorder. Discovering these behaviors during meals can help you know what to work on with your psychotherapist or dietitian, as well as give you a habit to work on changing with your supportive meal companion.

Again, almost anything could be an EDB. Whether it is or isn’t completely depends on what the root of the behavior is and how it is serving you or your disorder. If you’re not sure, discuss what behaviors you’re concerned about with a professional that specializes in eating disorders. Haven’t been diagnosed with an eating disorder but want to find out if you might need more help? Check out the previous post about screening.

How do you know if something is an eating disorder behavior? Do you have any testing of reality that you use in your head?

(Images are from Unsplash.)

Want more? Interested in working together? I’m giving away 4 sessions (enter by March 11th) & offering generously reduced programs/sessions the month of March to celebrate Breathe & Nourish’s 3rd birthday!

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