Crop close up of young Caucasian woman use modern smartphone talk on loudspeaker or record audio message online. Millennial female activate voice digital assistant on cellphone. Technology concept.

As anyone with an eating disorder knows, sometimes a trigger can rear its head when you least expect it. The word ‘trigger’ can mean many things for someone with a history of disordered eating. Something triggering may make you feel the urge to go back to your old patterns, but for others it may lead to a strong emotional response.

That’s even true for pop star Demi Lovato, 28, who made headlines in April 2021 when they went public about an experience in a frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles that they found triggering — meaning it set off an intense, uncomfortable emotional reaction for them.

The shop, called The Bigg Chill, offers no-sugar-added, fat-free, and dairy-free foods. Upon entering the shop Lovato, who has openly battled an eating disorder for years, found the marketing of these foods upsetting. “You have to walk past tons of sugar-free cookies and other diet foods before you get to the counter. Do better please,” the Dancing With the Devil singer posted on Instagram, along with the hashtag #dietculturevultures.

Though the shop responded to Lovato on Instagram and explained that they carry items for people with diabetes and coeliac disease, as well as vegan options, Lovato emphasised that they found their experience in the store “triggering and awful,” and that they “[had a] hard time the rest of the weekend” after the experience.

Lovato’s situation is an example of how eating disorder triggers can happen anywhere and at any time.

“There are so many things that can trigger us in life,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

“The first thing that comes to mind for me is the familiarity with the sensory experience — the sight, smell, feel, the memory through sensation, something that’s familiar from the past,” Dr. Mendez explains.

Triggers will invariably pop up when you are out and about. Fortunately, being prepared with a few simple, effective coping strategies can lessen any upsetting thoughts and feelings they provoke.

1. Learn to Identify Your Emotions

By identifying the emotion you’re experiencing, you can figure out the root of that trigger — and it becomes much easier to deal with, explains Ilene V. Fishman, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City and Montclair, New Jersey, and author of The Deeper Fix.

“Disordered eating usually is connected to some kind of emotional experience,” says Fishman. “Being in touch with how one is feeling is really important in terms of managing an eating disorder and triggers. We want to stop and say, “Okay, I’m feeling this emotion right now. What else is going on with me?’”

The next step, says Fishman, is deeper introspection. She recommends asking yourself:

  • “What do I need right now?”
  • “How can I best take care of myself right now?”
  • “How do I address this?”

2. Avoid Going Back to Old Patterns

Sometimes, it’s hard not to go back to older, familiar eating patterns when stressed. For some this may mean emotionally eating, while others may find comfort by restricting their eating. In both cases, it’s important to be aware of the use of food to manage negative thoughts and feelings – in the moment. These food behaviours may help you feel better, but not in the long run, advises Mendez.

3. Know When You’re Witnessing Toxic Diet Culture

Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram and come across posts about low-calorie meals, or you see a bus with a giant, diet-related ad on it, it’s practically impossible to escape the constant weight loss marketing that exists in our society, says Fishman. Being able to spot and recognise toxic diet culture is your best weapon to help prevent a negative outcome when triggered, she explains.

Not to mention “diet” foods usually aren’t good for you, Fishman adds. “Very often, it is really unhealthy foods that are being marketed.”

4. Have a Plan to Handle Triggers

Triggers are inevitable, so it’s key to have a plan for when they happen. One strategy to try is mindfulness,  a meditation practice in which you focus on the present and avoid being too reactive to what’s happening around you.

Why is mindfulness helpful? “It can stop negative behaviour in its tracks by preventing you from acting on trigger-related stress,” Mendez explains.

“We want to increase mindfulness and focus on the here and now – not what you did 10 years ago, not what you’re going to do in the future,” she says, adding that this strategy is best practised in a non-triggered state.

According to Mayo Clinic, the following simple practices can bring about more mindfulness into your life:

  • Pay attention to your senses in the present moment – what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or tasting.
  • Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. When doing this, you can also sit down and close your eyes.
  • Be kind. Accept yourself as you are and treat yourself as you would treat a close friend.

5. Keep a Journal of Your Emotions

A study published in December 2018 in JMIR Mental Health showed that online journaling may lessen mental distress and boost wellbeing among people with medical conditions. It can also help you fight food-related triggers because it allows you to explore your emotions, Fishman says.

“Getting grounded and feeling one’s feelings is really important,” she notes. “Sometimes you can write a response to a situation that you either send or don’t send to someone else, but just getting the feelings out can be really helpful.”

And journaling doesn’t always mean keeping a physical diary. Alternatively, you can express your feelings directly to a friend or loved one. “Journaling could be on a tablet or a phone, on paper, or it could be also just talking into your phone,” Fishman says.

“You could record a message for yourself to get the feelings out. The key is getting them out, but not in a way that’s self-destructive.”