Choosing a Challenge in Recovery: How and Why?

I think the most common challenge in eating disorder recovery is to incorporate fear foods; and it 100% makes sense to do so! Anorexia creates a rigid set of rules that limit what foods we can eat based on what is acceptable or safe as defined by our eating disorder. By identifying our fear foods, and incorporating them consistently into our lives, the fear food itself becomes less scary. Foods we once deemed unacceptable eventually become normalized in our daily intake the more we include it. That being said, it can often times become difficult to determine HOW and WHY we should incorporate fear foods in the first place. When planning out ways to challenge yourself, take some of these points into consideration.

Break it down

The first step to challenge yourself is to identify in what way can you challenge your eating disorder. Is it a specific food? Is it breaking free of the very rigid eating schedule that you follow throughout your day? Is it throwing out your measuring cups? Whatever it may be, self-awareness and identification is crucial. So, now that you’ve listed every single one of your challenges (side-note: this list will, and should, continue to grow), you’re left with a piece of paper with a bunch of chicken-scratch handwriting and the overwhelming anxiety begins to set in. And reasonably so! There may be what feels like a lot on this list, and having no clear-cut idea of where to begin makes it feel even more scary.

This is where breaking down the list is important. Ever hear of SUDS? This stands for: Subjective Units of Distress Scale. The point of this 1-10 scale is to measure your own intensity of distress associated with different experiences. Take a look at your list, and break down the challenges according to where your distress lies on the SUDS scale. You may find at first that every challenge you have listed is at a SUDS of 8 or higher. That’s okay, and that’s normal. The point of the list is to keep track of when the SUDS decrease over time and as the challenge becomes incorporated into your life with regularity. The point of using the SUDS scale with the list is also so that you have a clear representation of where to begin. No, this doesn’t mean choosing the challenge you have assessed as a 10 on the SUDS scale! Rather, this means starting out slow, and progressing at a gradual pace in challenging yourself.

How will the challenge play a role in your life after recovery?

When choosing a challenge, whether or not it even be a fear food, think about how this challenge can positively impact different aspects of your life separate from eating disorder recovery. For example, I made a very conscious effort to ensure that I ate a meal out at least once a week in the beginning stages of my recovery because I knew my end goal was to gain my social life back. By choosing this challenge, I was not only moving forward in recovery, but also progressing towards my goal of reaching more social freedom and social comfort. When choosing your challenge, think about how it can play a long-term role in your life, versus just a temporary short-term “challenge of the week.”

If you work a 9-5 job and consistently eat alone during your lunch break, a challenge may be to participate in a lunch outing with your co-workers. If you value traveling and would like to incorporate more into your life, consider challenging yourself to eliminating measuring your food and practicing intuitive eating (let’s face it, chances are you won’t be whipping out your measuring cup while eating lunch on the beach). Think about sustainability: what challenges does my life require me to continue doing (because of work, social life, etc) even after recovery?

Start NOW during recovery

I would emphasize this a million more times if I could. START NOW. Personal example: throughout my first recovery, I was extremely manipulative and deceiving when it came to my progress with challenges and fear foods. Truth be told, I didn’t actually eat the brownie I wanted to challenge myself with week after week (of course, my dietician didn’t know this at the time). So when I reached weight restoration, WHY the heck would I feel comfortable adding a brownie in at that point? My reaction: I don’t want to gain even MORE weight, so I must continue to not eat the brownie. If I had incorporated fear foods all along, I would have been able to collect data for myself that I would in fact be okay after eating them, and then feel ten times more comfortable continuing to add them in my daily intake after I was weight restored.

If we wait until we have reached weight restoration, or have waited until what we feel is “recovery,” the challenges and fears themselves actually haven’t really disappeared. They are still there, untouched and unexperienced. If we start now in recovery, it becomes significantly easier to continue to incorporate them regularly once we have reached weight restoration.



Nicole works as a life and wellness coach through Nicole Leigh Coaching ( Nicole strives to empower women with similar struggles to redefine and re-identify themselves, separate from their eating disorder. Through her work, she empowers women to use balance in every aspect of life to maintain lifelong recovery. When Nicole isn't blogging or counseling, she loves spending her time traveling, eating burgers, and surrounding herself with positive people.