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The Role of Counselling in ED Recovery

By Ally Goult, MA, RCC

Just like anything that our body is recovering from, recovery from disordered eating and exercise is super complex. Let’s use an analogy: when someone is going through a really complex injury, they often need help from a group of people, as opposed to just one doctor who has all the answers. Let’s say you break a bone and need surgery to repair it. You’ll have the x-ray tech who figures out what’s wrong, the doctor who specializes in understanding that type of injury, the surgeon who actually repairs the bone, and then probably a physiotherapist who helps you rehab.

We can also think this way when we’re helping people recover from disordered eating! Just as the surgeon will probably have a different lens than the physiotherapist, a therapist/counsellor is probably going to see your eating disorder in a slightly different way from your dietitian or your family doctor. And anytime we’re healing from something, the more lenses we can look through the greater our chance of figuring out what’s going to work for us.

At least for me as a therapist, I like to think of disordered eating as a symptom of something deeper, rather than the root disorder itself. A lot of the time, when we carry a lot of anxiety, grief, or trauma in our bodies, it can be really uncomfortable and even painful to live with. So we unconsciously turn to behaviours that help us feel in control (like restricting our food), until those behaviours themselves are harming us. Unfortunately, many of us might not even be aware that we are carrying deeper pain, because we’ve become really good at getting through our lives without really feeling our feelings. While this might work for a short time, and can actually help us get through painful situations, the long term effects of not feeling can look like anxiety, depression, hopelessness, anger, or a range of behaviours (like disordered eating!) that are really not helpful to us.

I believe the role of counselling in eating disorder recovery is to understand what is causing our pain/discomfort/feeling of “unsafety” in the first place, remembering that it’s those uncomfortable feelings that have created our eating disorder because eating disorders don’t come out of nowhere. When we do this, the power of the eating disorder can really be taken away, challenging our eating disorder voice can feel easier, and we can really start to heal.

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