Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Washout Phase

Recently I have been getting messages and emails from friends of mine in recovery explaining how sick and tired they are of trying. The initial discomfort of eating and dealing with emotions that have been avoided for an extended period of time often feels too painful to bear, which makes going back into eating disordered habits seem a million times easier than continuing with recovery. 

So, I dug up this old worksheet I received in treatment that talks about the "washout phase" of recovery. The first time I read this excerpt from "Improving Outcomes and Preventing Relapse in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" written by Martin Antony, Deborah Ledley, and Richard Heimburg, I was actually in the middle of this stage of recovery. 

Here is the actual text that changed my outlook on recovery (pg 227),

"When clients start to normalize their eating they are likely to experience a "washout" phase. The washout phase occurs during the initiation of normalized eating. It is typical during this phase for clients to experience an increase in gastrointestinal discomfort and pain (i.e., bloating, gas, constipation, and reflux); to feel more preoccupied with food, more dissatisfied with body image, and more anxious and depressed; and to have increased urges to binge eat. Eventually the physical discomfort will pass, and eating normally helps to reduce urges to binge, but at first clients have to do the eating while enduring an increase in physical and emotional discomfort.

It is best to prepare clients for the washout phase, and to let them know that this is a normal but extremely difficult part of recovery. Clients find it helpful to know that the only way to get to the other side of the washout phase is to eat through the distress and pain until they start to feel better, both physically and emotionally. Coping phrases such as "food is medicine" and strategies such as mechanical eating (i.e., planning meals and following through despite feelings) can also help with this process."

It is also important for me to mention, that I honestly felt like I went through this washout phase for a good six weeks. Everyone is different, however, making the period of time spent in the washout phase impossible to predict. The physical pain that is felt during this time will pass and the unpleasant emotions that are finally surfacing after years of avoidance will not last forever. Feelings are just feelings; they can't hurt you and I found I could endure them if I allowed myself to do so. 

To put it bluntly, the washout phase sucks, but it is a necessary part of recovery. I hope this information helps. Keep in mind that if I could get through it, anyone can do it.



  1. This is exactly what I needed today. Thanks, Kelsi.

  2. I so appreciate you for this post. It is a huge comfort as I feel I am in limbo between going back and moving forward for these days. Thank you so much. xoxo

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