Not So Fast: Making Major Life Changes After an Eating Disorder

When a loved one is recovering from an eating disorder, there is pressure from many sources to jump back into “normal life” as quickly as possible. Insurance companies stop paying for treatment as soon as it’s no longer medically necessary. Friends and family members can’t comprehend why she can’t return to college/soccer /summer camp by now because she “looks great.” The patient herself is tired of being supervised and worried about and carted to so many doctors’ appointments. Everyone seems to long for some sense of normalcy.

Like many psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders are often characterized by periods of exacerbation and periods of remission – a general waxing and waning of symptoms at various times. Symptoms may or may not be present at any point in time, but the predisposition is life-long. Stress of any kind has the potential to trigger a setback or a relapse.

We all have stress in our lives. Some stress is unavoidable, some foreseeable, some self-imposed. We can’t really predict or control certain major life stressors, such as natural disasters, car accidents, or the death of a family member. But we can control some of life’s stress – we can decide whether and when to make certain major life changes.

Keep in mind that significant life changes – even joyful ones – almost always involve stress, and those with eating disorders or other psychiatric illnesses are more prone to suffering the negative effects of stress than the average person. Therefore, I recommend that my patients who are recovering from an eating disorder have at least twelve months in full remission prior to embarking on a major life change, such as going away to college, living independently, moving to a new city, getting married, or getting pregnant.

What exactly does full remission entail? Well, it depends who you ask. One of the worst definitions of full remission I have ever heard is BMI of 18.5. Don’t even get me started on that one.

My definition of full remission from an eating disorder is comprehensive, involving physical, behavioral, social, and psychological parameters:
• Maintenance of 100% of ideal body weight
• Start or resumption of regular menstrual periods (in post-pubertal females)
• Stable vital signs and blood work
• Complete absence of binge eating and purging behaviors
• Complete absence of excessive, obligatory, or compulsive exercise
• Ability to tolerate a wide variety of foods and eating situations (restaurants, parties, picnics) with minimal anxiety
• Following a regular eating pattern of three meals and 1-3 snacks per day
• Ability to eat independently, at an age-appropriate level, while maintaining ideal body weight
• No more than mild body dysmorphia or body image preoccupation
• Return of normal (pre-illness) personality
• Regular engagement in age-appropriate activities (school, work, church, clubs, lessons)

So, if a patient plans to embark on a major life change, I strongly recommend that she meets all of the above criteria, consistently, for a minimum of 12-months before doing so.

You may ask, why wait 12 months? Why not just follow your dreams and start law school/tie the knot/have a baby as soon as the eating disorder is in remission? Here’s why:
• Because it takes at least 12 months for the brain to heal from the effects of starvation
• Because a patient’s vulnerability to relapse is greatest during the first 12 months
• Because it takes months to build new neural pathways, break free from engrained patterns of thinking, and establish healthy habits
• Because excess stress impairs ability to establish and maintain healthy habits
• Because maintaining remission is extremely difficult at first, but becomes easier as time passes
• Because certain life changes, such as getting married or having a child, involve the fate of another person whose life would be adversely affected by a recurrence of symptoms
• Because achieving remission was the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and you’ll do whatever you can to avoid having to go through that whole process again

With so many uncontrollable factors in life, why choose to add more stress so soon after a life-threatening illness?

In my opinion, it’s just not worth it.