Target already has their bathing suits out. And their shorts. tank tops. sandals. dresses. sunglasses. It’s all there. The sunglasses I can get behind. But I’ve been hung up on the bathing suits since last Saturday when I was face-to-face with them on my way to look for the Stanley Cups (thank you to my students for keeping me on the up-and-up with current trends). Anyway, back to the bathing suits: I have done a lot of healing work since the last time I put on a bathing suit, so it surprised me when I noticed the familiar feelings of anxiety rise up from my chest when I saw the racks upon racks of this year’s swimwear collection.

Unexpected Triggers

When considering why the sight of the bathing suits was so jarring for me in that moment, I discovered that the primary reason was that I hadn’t anticipated this trigger. First of all, it’s snowing outside, so it took me a hot minute to wrap my mind around the warm weather clothes, gardening supplies, and sunscreen underneath hanging cardboard cutouts of suns and palm trees in the seasonal section. For many people, it’s a “yay, warm weather is coming!” moment when stores debut their spring break and summer stock. For me, it’s an all-too-familiar pit in my stomach paired with some emotional turmoil that you, too, may understand if you have experienced triggers of your own throughout your recovery journey. 

Triggers can and often do “strike” unexpectedly. Eating disorder triggers come in all forms: food, people, clothes, smells, labels, holidays, seasons, certain restaurants and stores, and the list goes on. In my own experience, each of my triggers affect me in vastly different ways. Some evoke eating disorder memories, others evoke ED thoughts, and some even bring up ED nostalgia. And for me, the bathing suit section at Target did an odd combination of all three.

Proactively Approaching Potential Triggers

Throughout my own journey, I have learned that certain types of clothes are a trigger of mine. Specifically, clothes that show more skin than my tried and true lounge set from Aerie that I’ve been wearing on repeat for the past three months. Knowing this about myself helps me make sense of the thoughts and feelings I had when I walked into Target wrapped in my winter coat, stomping snow off my boots and was met with a robust selection of bathing suits. That moment instantly connected to the dread I experience when we approach seasons where more “revealing” clothing is common.

Regardless of where your triggers originate or come up for you, it’s helpful to identify and understand what they are, when and where you may encounter them, and how to effectively cope in that moment. Doing these things will then help you to conquer them beyond that moment, allowing you to continue moving with strength and compassion through your own recovery journey.

Steps for Identifying and Dealing with Unexpected Triggers in (and beyond) Eating Disorder Recovery

1. Make a list of your triggers

Include anything you can think of. This can be general, specific, or a combination of the two. Keep a note in your phone, add to the list as things come up, jot down anything that feels notable (emotions, time of day, a different reaction to a trigger than one you have had previously) about your experience with that trigger. Doing this creates awareness for the specific things in your life that evoke ED memories, thoughts, or nostalgia.

2. Notice patterns or commonalities

When you look at your list, see if you can identify any commonalities. Do a large chunk of your triggers “come up” in one particular season? Are many of them food-related? Do a number of them occur when you are at a certain place or around a specific person? Whatever the case may be, identifying patterns can help you anticipate and then choose to either avoid or confront triggers in the future.

3. Anticipate unexpected triggers (Excuse the oxymoron. I’ll explain . . .)

Once you start keeping track of your triggers, you may be able to more readily “anticipate” ones that may have previously been unexpected or surprising. For me, knowing that “warm weather clothes” are a trigger, I can better anticipate the debut of the bathing suit section in Target in the future. Knowing that this happens earlier than I had originally anticipated will help me to not be as “caught off guard” as I was this time.

I can also make the connection that I may feel similarly when some of the clothing companies and businesses I follow on Instagram start dropping their “Spring Previews” and “Vacation Ready” clothing collection. This prepares me to proactively approach these potential triggers: Do I want to unfollow a few accounts for a little while? Do I need to do some journaling or reflecting in anticipation for these things? Being able to plan for – rather than just react to – these things allows you more control over your emotions as the triggers may arise.

4. Notice your immediate reaction to the trigger

When you encounter a trigger, what thoughts come to mind? What emotions do you feel? While you may choose to avoid the trigger itself in the future, attempting to avoid the thoughts and emotions that the unexpected trigger brings up may result in increased negative thought patterns or an intensified experience of the negative emotion you are trying to avoid. When you take captive the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing, ask yourself: “What can I do with this right now? What do I need at this exact moment?” Do your best to honor what it is you need right then and there.

5. Disarm the triggers

Disarming the trigger is the process of taking its power away. This will look different for everyone. The goal, though, is to transfer the power the trigger may have over your thoughts and emotions back to you. This is hard work that you have likely already started in treatment, and this process will look different throughout different stages of your recovery journey. The process of disarming your triggers may even vary based on the specific trigger you are experiencing. 

For some, disarming the trigger may be avoiding the trigger entirely (at least for a while). It may be writing about why this particular event, person, thing, situation felt triggering. Maybe it’s talking about the trigger with your therapist or a trusted friend. For me, avoiding the bathing suit section at Target only made me think about it more, so I chose to walk through it instead. “Confronting” this particular trigger head on made the bathing suits feel and look less intimidating.

6. Remind yourself of the courageous and hard work you have already done

If you are on a recovery journey, you have likely done some serious work to get to this point. Try to meet thoughts sparked by your trigger with reminders of how much work you have done. 

For example, an initial thought I had when seeing the bathing suits in Target: My body looks and feels much different than it did when I was at my lowest weight. The last time I wore a bathing suit, I was counting all my calories and compulsively body-checking. How will I feel in a bathing suit this year?

A gentle reminder for yourself in the face of thoughts like these: You have done so much internal work since the last time you put on a bathing suit. You are no longer bound to the chains that calorie counting and body checking had you in. You have learned strategies that have moved you into freedom from your eating disorder. These accomplishments are important and notable, and you deserve the life that you are building, free from calorie counting, body checking, and body shame.

7. Share your triggers with someone you trust

Sharing your triggers with your therapist, nutritionist, friend, or another safe person you trust can help disarm the trigger, alleviate feelings of isolation or fear, and equip you with confidence to encounter the trigger again. If you choose to share a triggering experience with someone, it can be helpful to articulate what you need from this person (a listening ear, support, advice) before you share. 

8.  And remember that you’re human

Reacting to triggers does not mean you are falling back into old patterns. Having an emotional or physical response to triggers is not a sign that you have done or are doing anything “wrong.” Strong emotional responses and old thoughts resurfacing are to be expected at times. If anything, being able to identify your triggers for what they are, contemplate why you are experiencing them, and make choices about how you will cope with them are signs that you are healing parts of yourself that you, at one time, may not have even recognized needed attention. That’s valiant.  

So, Let’s Face Our Triggers Together

Facing and reacting to triggers when you are recovering from an eating disorder can feel disorienting and discouraging, especially when some of them come up unexpectedly. It’s important and liberating though, I think, to recognize that it is normal and even inevitable at points throughout the recovery process to encounter and have strong reactions to triggers. Becoming aware of your triggers, trying to anticipate them, and making a plan for how you will respond – both in the short and long term – is a key part of the recovery journey.

So, let’s suit up (no pun intended here), and walk into Target [or anywhere else you may want to go] together with our heads held high, equipped to face whatever trigger may be awaiting inside. 

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

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