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  • Gabrielle Morreale

Safety Behaviors: Helpful or Harmful in ED Recovery?




By: Gabrielle Morreale LPC


When we hear the word safety behavior we often think that this is some type of coping skill, something that will keep us safe. Right?!! Nope…wrong although at times a safety behavior is a coping skill they oftentimes do not keep us safe but stuck.


Safety behaviors provide short-term relief in an attempt to prevent some type of uncomfortable feelings or a feared catastrophe or anxiety producing event. For people with eating disorders this can range from gaining weight to having to eat in front of other people to taking pictures, trying new foods, and many more.


Although our healthy brain knows that none of these things are catastrophes and are not things we need to be kept safe from. Our eating disorder brain feels differently and tricks our brain into feeling like we need to engage in safety behaviors to keep ourselves from doing the things that ultimately will help us to heal from our disorder but may cause up ticks in our anxiety. So how do we stop engaging in these “ safety” behaviors and start taking steps towards recovery?!

When it comes to safety behaviors there are three types of avoidance safety behaviors escape safety behaviors and subtle avoiding safety behaviors. The first step is to identify which type of safety behavior you find yourself engaging in most. Recovery is not going to happen overnight. Be gentle with yourself. One of the best ways to start the healing

process is to first work on self awareness the more we can become aware of ourselves and our patterns the more we can begin to heal from that.

Once you start identifying your safety behaviors then you can start becoming curious about them. Next ask yourself why am I engaging in these behaviors if it’s an avoidant behavior what am I trying to avoid? For example if you are avoiding certain foods to stop weight gain why are you fearful of gaining weight is it possible you have a weight bias? Is this something that you could explore in therapy with your therapist or something you could journal about and do some reading or research on health at every size? Or are you trying to escape the anxiety of eating in front of others. We know in recovery this can feel really scary but by avoiding it or escaping whatever it may be we only allow the anxiety to grow. As your anxiety grows so does your eating disorder.

Once we know the type of safety behavior and we have been able to become curious about these behaviors, so what’s next? Next we take a breath and applaud yourself for taking these steps. Any small step in recovery is a huge victory! Now after you’ve brushed your shoulder off and acknowledged the incredible badass you are, it's time to challenge these safety behaviors with replacement behaviors. Behaviors that will challenge both your anxiety and your eating disorder. Will this be hard…YES…Can you do hard things…HELL YESSSS!!!


Some examples of replacement behaviors are trying a fear food or learning more about health at every size or using joyful movement instead of compulsive exercise. Each time you use a replacement behavior this reinforces for your brain that reinforcement behaviors are actual coping skills are in fact the actual safety behaviors and that these healing behaviors do not need to be feared. Also please remember recovery is a journey and wherever you are in yours is perfectly ok know that we are rooting for you all the way!!