The Importance of Accepting Recovery

Imagine the following: no matter what you do to try to change your body size, shape, and weight - whether it be diet, exercise, or liposuction - it instantly returns to exactly the way it is now.

What thoughts and emotions does that scenario bring up for you?

For some people, this exercise immediately prompts feelings of anxiety and loss of control. Some can be so provoked, they immediately shut down the experience by logically poking holes in the scenario such as “this couldn’t be real, so I don’t feel anything because I know I can control my body.” For others, relief from the constant struggle with their body will be felt. After all, if nothing can be done to change something, you might as well start accepting it, right? Only those who truly accept their body will be left unmoved by the exercise.

Beyond an interesting thought experiment, this exercise is an important Integrated Modular Therapy (IMT) tool on the road to recovery. This post explores some reasons why.

In eating disorders, recovery itself is feared and avoided. People with eating disorders have a fear of fatness and recovery is equated with fatness. As such, recovery is feared and behaviorally avoided through the engagement of eating disordered behaviors (e.g. calorie restriction, food avoidance, binge eating, intolerance behaviors such as purging, etc.). Because recovery is feared and avoided, imagining what it would *really* mean to be recovered is an interesting avenue for treatment.

In essence, the recovery entails: 1) refraining from engaging in attempts to change the bod, therefore, 2) experiencing a variety of negative emotions and other internal experiences (e.g. physically feeling full), and ultimately 3) coming to accept one’s body in the absence of attempting to change it. As such, exercises like the one above are designed to engender these experiences.

Because people with eating disorders can be unwilling to totally abandon eating disorder behaviors (i.e. attempts at changing their body), positing a world in which they cannot change their body prompts acceptance through the experience of learning to tolerate negative experiences crucial to recovery (e.g. loss of control and refraining from behaviors) that would otherwise be avoided. As such, this exercise primary serves as an imaginal exposure exercise.

In addition to prompting patients to learn to cope with negative emotions about recovery, this exercise often engenders positive emotions. For some patients, the participation in this exercise is the first time they really experience any sort of relief regarding the absence of eating disorder behaviors. Experientially knowing that abandoning the eating disorder behaviors can be a relief is very salient for some.

In summary, from an Integrative Modalities Therapy (IMT) perspective, the healthy alternative to trying to change the body is active acceptance. Acceptance can be fostered by identifying what is being avoided (e.g. particular aspects of recovery), then engaging in a crafted exposure to those negative stimuli.