Why stress management is an essential aspect of HA and ED recovery

When it comes to recovering from hypothalamic and eating disorders, addressing stress is an important piece of the puzzle. Stress can be a major contributor to these conditions as well as a result of them. Experiencing prolonged periods of heightened stress can encourage people with a history of disordered eating or eating disorders to fall back into these patterns as a coping strategy, so learning to manage your stress is crucial if you’re trying to recover from HA or an eating disorder.

Stress can cause damage to your body.

High stress levels can have a detrimental effect on your body. This could lead to or worsening conditions, such as HA. When you’re extremely stressed, you release greater amounts of cortisol (a stress hormone). This can lead to hormonal imbalances, high blood pressure and digestive problems, as well as compromised immune function.

Stress can have many negative effects on your physical and mental health. And particularly when you’re experiencing prolonged stress, this often leads to hormonal imbalances. Essentially, your body becomes stuck in a state of fight or flight, causing it to enter survival mode and conserve energy wherever possible – for example, by halting your menstrual cycle and ovulation, and reducing production of sex hormones. This is what we call hypothalamic enorrhea.

While overeating and exercising can cause heightened stress levels and exacerbate HA, they are not the only causes. Significant emotional stress can also have the exact same effect on your body.

Understanding how to manage your stress levels – whether it be emotional stress, or physical stress due to unhealthy exercise or eating habits, is essential in preventing your body from being “stuck” in this survival state, and allowing it to restore optimal function and your menstrual cycle. Without stress management, your body doesn’t have the available energy or capacity to heal.

Stress can also cause disordered behavior.

People with eating disorders are more likely to be perfectionists and to feel more pressure from society and peers. This includes the pressure to have the “perfect” body size and shape, or to look a certain way. These pressures can cause extreme stress and can even lead to unhealthy eating habits or behaviours.

When we get stressed, we’re more likely to act impulsively, and fall back into disordered habits and behaviours to help us cope or manage the stress. No matter the cause of stress, it can be physical, mental, emotional or both. These unhealthy eating or exercise habits can include restriction or deprivation or over-exercising.

Studies have shown that stress plays a major role in addiction or relapse. For many, these eating disorder behaviors are very similar to an addictive behavior. Stress has been shown to increase your chances of restricting energy or food intake if you’ve had a history of eating disorders or HA – which in turn increases your risk of developing HA.

So if you’re in recovery and you’re experiencing heightened stress, this may be significantly interfering with your efforts to heal your relationship with food and your body. Stress may be encouraging you to revert back to the harmful behaviours you’ve been working to correct, or keeping your body “stuck” in a state of stress, leaving you unable to restore your period and your health.

How can you manage stress to support your recovery from illness?

Before you panic, there are many strategies to help manage your stress.

1. Other strategies for coping are possible.

The most important thing is to develop alternative, healthier coping mechanisms to use in times of stress. This could be journaling, meditation or spending time in nature. It could also include talking to a loved person, practicing self-care, and even talking to your doctor. Whatever it may look like for you, if you’re able to use These strategies to manage and control your stress in times of need, you’re much less likely to resort to the damaging eating and exercise behaviours which no longer serve you, or align with your recovery goals.

2. Get enough sleep.

When you sleep, you allow your body to enter its rest and repair state – which is potentially the only time you spend here if you’re chronically stressed. Sleep is critical for allowing your body to heal, restore hormonal balance, and recover from the punishment and deprivation it’s endured throughout long periods of disordered eating and HA. You should aim to sleep for between 7-9 hours each night.

3. Be supported by family and friends.

Your support network is vital during your recovery. It is crucial to have a support network of trusted friends and family that you can confide and ask for help when you need it. This will help you keep on track even when things get difficult. They can also be so helpful when it comes to relieving stress – after all “a problem shared is a problem halved”! It’s true though, talking things out with someone you trust can help you approach stresses or problems with a new perspective, and remind you that things aren’t as overwhelming as they may seem.

4. Move your body with kindness

You may need to stop exercising during recovery. You can still move in ways that are liberating, relaxing, and joyful. You can reduce stress by moving gently and purposefully. After all, when you’re truly present, you aren’t worrying about the future – you’re simply existing in the moment. This is a great way of releasing stress.

5. Breathe.

Breathwork is another great method to reduce stress, both short-term and long-term. It allows you to reset your nervous system and take a breath. It allows you to calm your racing thoughts and bring back your body.

Throughout your recovery, stress management should not be overlooked. Rebuilding your relationship with yourself, your body and food is crucial. However, alternative coping strategies can be developed to avoid relapses into disordered behavior. Actively reducing stressors or improving your response can help your body recover and repair itself after years and years of cruel treatment. It also facilitates the restoration of your menstrual cycle without the negative effects of cortisol or hormonal imbalances.

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