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Recovery Fatigue

I had an interesting discussion with a client about how well she was doing eating “normally” while visiting her family, then how things suddenly fell apart. She said that for most of the week she’d eaten only when she was hungry and stopped when she was full or satisfied, but that by the end of the visit, she was back to her old eating habits. The truth is I hear this lament a lot. It’s called recovery fatigue.

It can be hard to keep attuned to hunger, food preference, enjoyment, and satiation on an ongoing basis. The process demands focus, effort, thought, reflection, insight—and discomfort. If you’re used to having a relationship with food that’s mostly on autopilot, serious, continuing concentration can feel exhausting. This is why pacing and patience is important rather than throwing all your energy into being different and getting well--and temporarily burning yourself out.

Think about being in college, trade school, or learning a new job. You try to absorb new information rapidly and apply it, but after a while, you’re still making mistakes. You can’t recall what you did earlier when you were feeling fresher. Actions which were gradually becoming easier and more familiar suddenly grow awkward and difficult. Your brain is fatigued from all that focusing, attention and practice. This is natural in the learning process because we are humans, not machines.

The same thing can happen to people who are learning to become “normal” eaters. If some of my clients are an indication of the average disregulated eater who wants an improved relationship with food, the process begins with determination and a throwing of self into the challenge. It’s natural, however, for motivation to wane and to get tired of all the work involved. That means the body and mind need a rest. Or maybe it indicates that you’re pushing yourself too hard and need to slow down your pace. It does not mean there is anything wrong with your ability to progress. Better to pace yourself than to go full speed ahead and crash. And even if you do crash, so what. Give yourself time to recover, then resume and keep making progress for as long as you can.

Moreover, maintaining progress is doubly hard outside of your usual environment. Remember that when you’re with family, you’re also working hard to have a positive relationship with them and that, too, can be exhausting—trying to put your best foot forward, biting your tongue, and not taking things personally. Eventually something has to give and sometimes it’s in the food arena. Not to worry. Take a break and start again.