At a lecture on aging last month, two approaches for rehabilitating stroke victims—restitutive versus substitutive—were mentioned. Restitutive therapy was described as strengthening the limb/s which are paralyzed, while substitutive therapy helps build up the limb/s that have not been affected. The more I thought about them, the more I realized that these approaches also could be used by people recovering from eating problems.

Distracting yourself when you have the urge to eat when you’re not hungry or when you can’t wait to rush off to the gym or purge after you’ve eaten is a substitutive behavior. It compensates for or takes you away from impulsive behavior. Sitting with feelings and not acting on harmful eating behaviors is restitutive behavior because these actions make you stronger emotionally. Some people will lean more toward one kind of technique than the other, but both are necessary to change destructive eating patterns.

Stop and assess your restitutive and substitutive activities. Do you do well sitting with anxiety, but struggle to come up with avenues to direct yourself away from food abuse? Or do you constantly find distractions so you won’t abuse food or your body rather than ride out scary, difficult feelings? If you’re good at distracting yourself and substituting behavior, your work is in the restitutive arena. You must learn to experience feelings, not avoid them. You need to build up emotional muscle to combat urges and that only happens by resisting and overcoming them over and over. If you’re fairly strong in not acting on impulse and don’t know what else to do when a destructive one beckons, you need to develop other ways to get over rough spots. Your work is to channel your thoughts in alternate directions, to get your body moving and involved in non-food activity, to turn your emotional attention elsewhere.

Take a moment to reflect on which strategies you usually use to avoid acting on destructive eating impulses. Notice if you tend toward restitution and building inner resources or substitution and learning how to get around obstacles. Whichever your inclination, consider why you don’t choose the other route more often. Are you afraid it will fail? Do you believe you have to get good at one approach to recover and stick with it? Did you never imagine that there might be more than one way to skin this cat called food abuse? Now take another moment and come up with some ideas for what you are not doing to overcome your eating problems. By expanding your repertoire, you won’t have to struggle so hard and will heal more quickly.