Coping with Summer Eating Disorder Triggers

June 03, 2024

Many eating disorder triggers tend to intensify around spring break and the summer months that follow. This poses significant challenges for individuals with a history of eating disorders and/or body image dissatisfaction. For people with eating disorders, the summer months can be incredibly challenging. Maintaining recovery from an eating disorder requires consistent effort, vigilance, and support. Experiencing setbacks in recovery is not uncommon, and summertime tends to be particularly fraught with triggers. Awareness of summertime triggers can help individuals with eating disorders and their loved ones prepare for and navigate recovery challenges together.

Don’t Let Diet Culture Ruin Summer

Diet Culture, a system of beliefs that glorifies thinness, contributes to negative body image, a common eating disorder risk factor. Body image challenges can not only contribute to the development of eating disorders but can also trigger relapse for those in recovery.

As the weather gets warmer, some people look forward to wearing their favorite sundresses or sitting poolside with friends. In contrast, others become overwhelmed with anxiety at the thought of baring more skin. This is understandable, given the prevalence of fatphobia and weight stigma. The pressure to be “swimsuit ready” can be stressful for anyone – whether they’ve had an eating disorder or not. Some people may respond to warm-weather diet culture pressure by changing their diet and exercise habits to meet unrealistic beauty standards. Others may experience bouts of depression and isolation as they attempt to avoid social activities altogether. Both scenarios could suggest that someone is at risk for developing an eating disorder or experiencing a relapse.

Summer Eating Disorder Triggers and Recovery Challenges

Body Image Challenges

Diet culture’s emphasis on having a “beach-ready body” and society’s glorification of thinness pose significant challenges for individuals with eating disorders. Increased exposure to media images of idealized body types, such as in swimwear advertisements or social media, may exacerbate body dissatisfaction and contribute to relapse. Weight loss has become normalized as an almost obligatory part of a healthy lifestyle, perhaps even more so during warm-weather months.

Summertime often involves wearing lighter clothing, such as swimwear or shorts, which can increase body exposure and self-consciousness. Being in environments where others are engaged in body-focused activities like swimming or sunbathing may intensify body image concerns and self-comparison.

Social Gatherings

Summertime often involves more social gatherings, outdoor activities, and occasions centered around food, such as barbecues, picnics, and parties. The pressure to participate in these events and engage in food-related activities can be stressful and triggering for individuals with eating disorders. They may feel overwhelmed by the fear of judgment or comparison or deviate from their established eating patterns.

Changes In Routine

During summer, people tend to have more flexible schedules, including vacations, holidays, and breaks from school or work. These disruptions to daily routines can affect meal planning, regular eating patterns, and access to support systems. Lack of structure and increased downtime may result in more time for negative thoughts or behaviors associated with an eating disorder. Summer vacations or travel can disrupt established routines and access to familiar support systems and increase feelings of anxiety or isolation. Being in new environments or unfamiliar situations may exacerbate stress levels, making it more challenging to maintain recovery-focused behaviors.

Heat And Hydration Concerns

Individuals with eating disorders may restrict fluid intake to manipulate weight or body appearance. During summer, the higher temperatures and increased physical activity can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances if hydration is not prioritized. These physiological challenges can impact physical and mental well-being and potentially increase vulnerability to relapse.

Strategies for Coping with Summer Eating Disorder Triggers

Develop A Solid Support System

Spend time with people who support your recovery and avoid those who don’t (including on social media). Reaching out to friends, family, therapists, support groups, or online communities can be a great source of encouragement. Having people who can offer support during – or even anticipate – challenging times can be invaluable. Inform your close friends and loved ones about your recovery challenges and any triggers you may encounter during the summer. Share your concerns and ask for their support in avoiding situations or conversations that could be problematic. It’s important to keep appointments with your care team during the summer months so they can help keep you accountable. Continue to engage with your treatment team or therapist regularly. Schedule additional sessions if needed. They can help you navigate triggers, provide coping strategies, and offer tailored guidance.

Nourish Well

Create a structured and balanced meal plan with the help of your registered dietitian or healthcare professional. Stick to your regular eating routine as much as possible, even if your schedule is disrupted. Having a plan in place can provide a sense of control and stability. Staying nourished will also support your mental health and mood regulation, making you better equipped to handle eating disorder recovery challenges and triggers.

Pay attention to your body’s hydration needs, especially in hot weather. Stay hydrated by drinking water regularly and maintaining a balanced diet. Seek shade and cool environments when needed, and ensure you are taking care of your overall health.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Engage in behaviors and thoughts that improve your relationship with yourself, such as practices that promote self-care and self-compassion. This could include journaling, practicing mindfulness or meditation, relaxing baths, volunteering, engaging in creative outlets, writing affirmations, or participating in activities that bring joy and fulfillment.

Be aware of negative or distorted thoughts about body image, food, or weight. Challenge these thoughts with evidence-based, positive affirmations and remind yourself of your progress in your recovery journey.

Engage In Alternative Summer Activities

You don’t have to have a cookie-cutter summer! You can opt out of activities that neither bring you joy nor serve your recovery. Prioritize your needs and set boundaries around situations that may be triggering. It’s okay to decline invitations or remove yourself from environments that might compromise your recovery. Putting your well-being first is essential.

Supporting Loved Ones with Eating Disorders

Educate Yourself

Learn about eating disorders, their causes, and treatment approaches. Understand the specific challenges that can arise during the summer and how they may impact your loved one. Education will enable you to offer informed and empathetic support.

Communicate Openly and Mindfully

Have open and honest conversations about your loved one’s recovery goals, triggers, and any concerns they may have about the summer months. Encourage them to share their needs, worries, and fears with you. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your loved one to express their feelings and concerns. Avoid commenting on your loved one’s appearance, weight, or food choices; refrain from conversing about diets, weight loss, or body comparisons. Instead, focus on topics that promote well-being, self-acceptance, and positive experiences.

It’s also important to carefully consider the words you choose to discuss your own body and food choices not to perpetuate eating disorder thinking.

Understand and respect your loved one’s boundaries around specific situations, activities, or conversations that may trigger them. Support their decisions to decline invitations or remove themselves from triggering environments. Remember, it’s not your job to “fix” the eating disorder or preempt every trigger. Be present, show compassion and empathy, and be available to listen.

Help Your Loved One Keep Appointments

Encourage your loved one to continue seeing their treatment team or therapist regularly. Offer assistance scheduling appointments, transportation, or researching additional resources if needed. Let them know you support their commitment to recovery.

Be A Source Of Support

Listen actively and provide emotional support when your loved one needs to talk. Offer reassurance, encouragement, and validation. Let your loved one know you are there for them and that their feelings are valid. Suggest and engage in activities not centered around food or body appearance. Plan outings such as walks, hikes, art classes, movie nights, or other hobbies focusing on shared experiences and enjoyment. If appropriate and agreed upon, offer to assist with meal planning or preparation. Respect their choices while ensuring they have access to balanced meals and snacks.

Celebrate Non-Appearance-Related Achievements

Recovery from an eating disorder takes time and can involve setbacks. Be patient, understanding, and supportive throughout the process. Celebrate small victories and remind your loved one of their resilience and progress. Shift the focus away from appearance and weight by acknowledging and celebrating your loved one’s non-appearance-related achievements. Recognize their progress, strengths, and positive qualities.

Encourage Self-Care

Make sure your loved one knows it’s ok to claim their “me” time, whatever that means for them. Promote self-care activities that prioritize their mental and physical well-being. Hint: You may have an easier time encouraging your loved one to prioritize self-care if you’re willing to model self-compassionate behavior yourself.

Potential Signs of Relapse

Even with relapse-prevention strategies and a support network in place, recovery is a long, challenging journey. People with eating disorders and their loved ones need to know that recovery setbacks and relapse are not signs of failure and do not warrant judgment or criticism. If you notice any signs of an eating disorder relapse, seek help as soon as possible to get back on track.

  • A pattern of missing or rescheduling appointments
  • A shift from the eating plan that your loved one was following during the early stages of recovery
  • Eliminating a new food or progressive elimination of foods from a specific food group based on social media advice or community pressure
  • Avoiding social meal outings due to discomfort from eating in public or fear of the menu regardless of social support available during the outing
  • An increase in rigidity around eating patterns, including rigidity around the recovery eating plan itself, due to fears of making mistakes or too much dependence on “the plan that worked”
  • Signs of withdrawal or depression in both independent and social situations
  • An increase in time spent perusing social media
  • An increase in conversations comparing body or food behaviors with others
  • Signs of an increase in a behavior pattern that may reflect a transfer of “addictions,” such as more frequent shopping trips or package home-deliveries
  • More frequent participation in group exercise classes or individual exercise in general
  • An increase in “mirror checking” or trying on clothing previously worn during the active eating disorder days
  • A pattern of missing small but cumulative “daily life skills,” like buying groceries, paying bills, walking a pet, self-care appointments, doing laundry, etc.
  • A pattern of missing prescribed medications, whether from forgetfulness or avoidance.
  • A change in personal hygiene as an indication of isolation, depression, and apathy
  • A significant change in body weight in either direction
  • A lack of focus on work, including an increase in missed days on the job

Consistency is Important for Recovery

Maintaining recovery from an eating disorder requires some consistency. Whether regular sessions with a therapist and dietitian or having a meal plan, recovery-oriented routines can be helpful. These routines can get disrupted by warm-weather activities like vacations or social events. Taking breaks and enjoying quality time with loved ones is not only ‘ok’ for people in recovery but also necessary. Still, the fact remains that having too much free time can make it all too easy to slip back into disordered behaviors, particularly if the warm-weather months stir up old eating disorder thoughts. To fully enjoy the sunshine, people in recovery will likely benefit from having a modified warm-weather routine shared with members of their support network for added accountability.

Eating disorders thrive in isolation. Recovery – and recovery maintenance- require community. If the thought of summer causes recovery-related anxiety, remember that you have the right to replace triggering situations with activities that support your recovery and happiness. And, if you find yourself struggling to cope with summer triggers, you are not alone. It’s normal to experience setbacks, and in navigating these challenges, you may end up strengthening your recovery in the long run.

Alsana is an eating recovery community and treatment provider that helps adult clients of all genders achieve lasting recovery and whole health. One of our key differentiators at Alsana is our Adaptive Care Model – It’s a holistic program that focuses on medical treatment, nutrition, movement, therapeutic, and relational components. At Alsana, we enrich our therapeutic approach with Compassion Focused Therapy, which promotes mental and emotional healing by replacing internalized shame and self-criticism with acceptance and self-compassion. We believe treatment should meet each client where they are in their recovery, and our customized programs offer an unparalleled level of support tailored to each client.

Alsana offers all levels of care, including residential, PHP, and IOP programs with locations in California, Alabama, and Missouri. We also offer virtual treatment programs to clients in eligible states across the country. Contact us at (866) 471-4403 or to begin your healing journey.