Using Social Media to Support Eating Disorder Recovery
As an eating disorder counselor in Plano, Texas I hear a lot about juice cleanses, intermittent fasting, and other “miracle” wellness trends. My experience is that trying these methods usually makes people feel worse, and isn’t sustainable in the long run. This is especially true for people who struggle with eating disorders because they are battling more than just willpower and knowing the “right” foods to eat.
I have found, however, that social media diets DO work. How we feed our minds is just as important as how we feed our bodies. For many suffering with eating disorders, social media can become a barrier to their recovery. For example, it can reinforce body image distress and negative self-talk. If this is you, it’s time for a social media diet.
For some, this might take the form of unfollowing certain “thinspiration” Instagram accounts. Or perhaps it means hiding that one friend whose “motivational” quotes are anything but. Others might find that a balanced social media diet involves adding pages that celebrate diversity in their posts. In this blog, I explore how social media, used recklessly, can lead down a path of self-loathing, disconnection, and unhealthy comparison. I also explore how we can use social media to fill our heads with positive messages, connect with others, and to build a foundation of self-acceptance.
What Is Your News Feed Feeding You?
While eating disorders existed long before Facebook and Twitter, research suggests that social media has amplified them. Research about Facebook users finds they have more negative feelings in general, more negative feelings about their bodies, a greater desire to lose weight, and increased comparison with others.
Someone who kept a detailed account of food and calorie counts in the 90s can now log that information into one of the many apps available. They'll even get recommendations for exercises to burn off those calories. Similarly, someone who compared his body to others’ in the gym before social media doesn’t even have to leave his couch to feel inadequate today! For many, the use of technology is almost constant these days, and this heavy use has been linked to negative mental health outcomes.
Of course, cutting social media out of our lives wouldn’t magically cure eating disorders and poor body image. But hospital admissions for eating disorders have doubled in the last ten years, and studies specifically link eating disorders and tracking apps. We can’t deny that there’s likely a correlation. This correlation is even more probable in those predisposed to eating disorders, and those already struggling with body image.
This also means that being intentional about online activity can improve our self-esteem, our relationship with food, and our body image. So how do we harness the power of technology for good and not for never-good-enough?
First of all, let’s talk about your smart watch. Pretty amazing right? It can receive text messages, tell you when to take a breath and…. encourage compulsive exercise habits. For many of my clients, the occasional prompts to stand up and move sound a lot like the constant voice they already have in their head.
Now add the validation of the community aspect of activity tracking, the gold stars and ring-closing. Add in the fact that some insurance companies actually give discounts for meeting exercise goals. Some companies financially reward employees for weight loss. Suddenly, that eating disorder voice isn’t just inside our heads. It’s shaking our wrists, flashing lights, and rewarding us socially and financially.
The smart watch is the perfect metaphor for how we use technology and social media to compare ourselves to an arbitrary standard. The health goals aren't always backed by science, and they aren't targeted to the individual. And still, we too often feel blindly devoted to meeting the watch’s demands.
How Do We Break Free?
So how do we break free? Your wearable devices pay such close attention to you and your signals. It's time you paid attention to its signals and the way they impact you. Does the reminder to close your rings make you feel guilty? Disable it! When you see a friends’ running route on your fitness app, do you feel like dropping everything and going to the gym? Delete it!
An important part of the social media “diet” is cutting out the information that causes more harm than good. As an eating disorder therapist, I always ask about a client’s social media use. We discuss pros and cons, and I encourage them to monitor this for themselves. Is something is increasing anxiety? Is something causing you to feel bad about your body or increasing obsessive thoughts about food? Cut down or cut it out altogether! It will always be there to return to if you change your mind. And it will probably free up a lot of time. Spend it instead on things that are truly fulfilling and improve your mental health.
Grading on a Curve
Look, it’s normal to compare ourselves to others. Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, so we create our own by observing how people around us do things. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing -- it can be a way to learn, grow, and connect. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and we feel less alone with our struggles. What could go wrong?
Glad you asked. When we compare ourselves to others only in the categories where we think we fall short, we ignore the categories where we make meaningful contributions. It’s like being graded on a scale where 100 out of 100 is the only passing grade. We all have our strengths and areas of growth, and many of my clients are blind to their own strengths and areas of growth. In other words, all they see is, “She’s better than I am, and I suck.”
Have you ever seen the Ebbinghaus optical illusion? The two inner circles are the exact same size. One is surrounded by smaller circles and the other is surrounded by larger ones.
Imagine that you’re the inner circle, and whatever you surround yourself with has an impact on how you appear. Similarly, in Jenni Schaefer's popular memoir about her eating disorder recovery, Life Without Ed, she describes feeling as if she gained or lost fifteen pounds in a single elevator ride, depending on who stepped in or out.
In the context of social media, if you’re scrolling through faces and bodies that all look a certain way, you’ll feel a lot different about yourself than you do scrolling through self-care mantras, body-positive fashion, and adventure travel accounts.
Putting Social Media to Good Use
Social media is powerful! You can use that power to keep you stuck in a pattern of self-loathing and negative comparison. Or, you can use that power to build you up, stay connected, and keep you centered and focused on your recovery goals. The good news is it only takes a few clicks to turn social media into what you need it to be.
Fighting Weight Stigma to Fight Eating Disorders
It’s important to see images of all different body types and sizes in order to reset our brains to see all bodies as okay. This is a crucial goal in eating disorder recovery, regardless of your weight. In other words, we must fight to end weight stigma -- the idea that thinness is medically and socially superior -- if we are to end eating disorders because eating disorders thrive on the fear of fatness. Moreover, weight stigma has been found to be damaging to both mental and physical health. And it's great news that research suggests we are more accepting of a wider variety of body types, including our own, when we are exposed to more diverse images of bodies in media. How cool is that?
Finding a Body Positive Community
In my eating disorder counseling practice in Plano, Texas, so many of my clients find themselves frustrated once they enter recovery. Imagine this: You've developed a healthier relationship with food, and no longer restrict calories or food groups (a.k.a. dieting). You've rediscovered your innate ability to eat what you want when you're hungry, without the guilt and shame. You don't necessarily LOVE your body, but you just don't really think much about it anymore. Some days you DO kind of love certain things about it. The peace you've found with all this is amazing. BUT... you now realize that you're the only one who thinks and feels this way!
Everyone else around you is still stuck in diet culture, berating themselves for their failures with their diet of the month, or talking about how much weight they still need to lose. This talk never ends! So, of course, you begin to feel isolated. You've tried, but no one around you can or will entertain this new world of yours. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who have also escaped diet culture out there. Particularly on social media. While it's important to keep searching for a community of like-minded people to hang with in person, it may take a while. Depending on where you live, it may prove difficult. Social media may be your best bet.
Finding Other Things to Focus On
In addition to finding a supportive community, another vital component of eating disorder recovery is expanding your interests beyond your food/eating behaviors and physical appearance. Eating disorders keep you stuck obsessing about this kind of thing, and our culture happily reinforces it, so it's difficult. But necessary. And rewarding.
As an eating disorder therapist in Plano, Texas, I help clients explore what values are important to them beyond their body size and shape. This may be education, career, parenting/family, and hobbies. Then we get to work brainstorming how they can begin to strengthen these areas. When eating disorders get bad, clients spend about 90% of the day thinking about food and their apperance. Interests that were once important to them shrink to almost nothing. They socially isolate and stop engaging in hobbies. At worst, eating disorders can lead to clients dropping out of or failing out of school or having to leave jobs.
Here is where social media can be put to good use. Once someone identifies other things beyond diet and body size to get passionate about, they can find social media to help reinforce this focus. Social media is chock full of positive influences if you look for them. For example, there are tons of Facebook groups and other social media feeds with active discussions about inspirational topics like careers, hobbies, religion, and mindfulness. In addition, you can find resources for self care and behaviors that help with emotional regulation. These include pursuing hobbies, practicing meditation or yoga, or connecting with others in local meetup groups.
More To Love (And Like)
Choosing which pages to follow and delete can make a huge difference to your self-esteem. But there will still be moments when an unrealistic image slips through, or a well-meaning friend posts a kale smoothie photo with a celebration of her clean eating and recent weight loss. Here are some “mindset filters” to help you see these moments through a different lens.
- If you do notice that you’re comparing yourself, remember your strengths too. As discussed above, we tend to self-select the traits that we measure. We ignore the times when we do have more experience or a really cool skill that our friend might not have. The idea isn’t to win or lose the comparison. It's to acknowledge that we are multifaceted people who cannot be measured by a single metric.
- When you’re scrolling through photos of people on your news feed, look into them instead of looking at them. Focus on the person’s eyes. Notice what they’re doing or where they are. This trains your brain to connect with people. In turn you better value who you are aside from the form your body happens to take.
- When body positivity isn’t in the cards, as this may be an unattainable goal, aim for body neutrality. You don’t have to love every photo of you that’s taken. Even Taylor Swift admits in her recent Netflix documentary that she used to spiral from seeing photos of herself posted by fans. Body neutrality is the idea that, just like a close friend, sometimes our bodies will annoy us, but we respect them and recognize their value even when we don’t actively feel love for them.
If you're wondering where to start in your journey to find more positive social media, here are some great resources:
If you want to improve your relationship with social media to support your eating disorder recovery, I’d love to help! If you’re looking for eating disorder counseling in Plano, Texas or just want to make peace with your body, contact me at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.