Learn to Spot Cognitive Distortions in Eating Disorder Recovery

November 30, 2021 Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

In many cases, eating disorder behaviors can be fueled by cognitive distortions. These irrational thought patterns could influence you to latch onto a negative and inaccurate view of yourself, a situation, a relationship, or life as a whole. But cognitive distortions only have power if you allow them to take root, which means that you can learn to spot cognitive distortions—and ultimately combat them—in eating disorder recovery. 

What to Know About Eating Disorders and Cognitive Distortions

Are you aware the human mind can process more than 6,000 thoughts over the course of just one day? Neuroscience researchers from Queen's University in Ontario arrived at this estimate in 2020 when they measured how the brain moves from one thought to the next.But, how much of this continual thought loop is actually helpful and constructive—or even true, for that matter? Do you choose to believe your own thoughts at sheer face value, then respond to them on automatic impulse? Or do you pause to interrogate whether or not those thoughts have a place in your commitment to eating disorder recovery?   

The reality is, some thoughts will help you, while others have the potential to harm you. Cognitive distortions fall into the latter category—but with some careful attention, as well as decisive action, you can learn to spot these cognitive distortions in eating disorder recovery. Then, once you're in the practice of identifying them, you can intercept those thoughts and refocus them in a healthier direction, rather than allowing them to spiral into an intrusive belief or reckless behavior. The next time a thought which feels like it could be a cognitive distortion crosses your mind, here are some questions to examine before you act.  

6 Questions that Can Teach You How to Spot Cognitive Distortions 

  1. What does this thought ask me to believe? For instance, let's assume your thought is, "I am worthless if I eat all the food on my plate without being able to exercise immediately after the meal." In this case, the thought asks you to believe that your human worth is tied to the number of calories you burn or restrict. 
  2. Does this thought make me feel empowered? To use the same example, this belief that your worth hinges on compulsive exercise and caloric restriction does not cultivate feelings of personal empowerment. Rather, that belief is much more likely to cause insecurities, self-flagellation, and ultimately, disempowerment.  
  3. Is this thought in line with factual reality? Now it's time to consider the level of accuracy in this belief. Just because you perceive a connection between your worth and the amount of food you consume or exercise you perform, that does not mean a connection exists. Perception and reality are two different scenarios.
  4. Will this thought serve the life I want to create? If your commitment is to recover from an eating disorder, the choice to believe your worth is linked to caloric restriction will not help you achieve this goal. You cannot build a life of freedom, healing, and wholeness if you are still ruled by a negative impression of yourself.
  5. If I act on this thought, what will I lose or gain? All actions result in either productive or destructive consequences. So think about which outcome will take place if a belief turns into a behavior. If you restrict or over-exercise, you might feel temporary satisfaction, but you won't have the energy and nutrients to function.
  6. What new thought can I reframe this into? As a sentient being, you have control of your own brain. That means you can redirect a harmful belief, instead of falling victim to it. For instance, shift the message from, "I am worthless," to, "My eating disorder wants me to think I am worthless, but my value has nothing to do with how much I exercise or restrict my food intake. I will not listen to this deception anymore."  

Don't Let Cognitive Distortions Affect Your Eating Disorder Recovery

When you learn to spot cognitive distortions in eating disorder recovery, this awareness will give you both the confidence and competence to intentionally build healthier thought patterns. Just because a cognitive distortion enters your brain does not mean it's true or that you should act on it. Quite the opposite, in fact—you can choose to halt the cognitive distortion in its tracks and prioritize your own mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing instead. 


  1. Tseng, J., et al., "Brain Meta-State Transitions Demarcate Thoughts Across Task Contexts Exposing the Mental Noise of Trait Neuroticism." Nature Communications, July 13, 2020.  

APA Reference
Schurrer, M. (2021, November 30). Learn to Spot Cognitive Distortions in Eating Disorder Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

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