My Safety Plan to Cope with Disordered Eating

Eating disorders and disordered eating affect many young people across Canada. Intense thoughts about food, eating and your body’s weight / shape can be signs that a person may engage in disordered eating. If you’re experiencing these kinds of thoughts, you may feel confused, overwhelmed and / or scared. You may also experience urges to change the way you eat or look to cope. In this article, you’ll find information on how to recognize signs of disordered eating and how to make a safety plan to put your well-being first and get support. 

    • What’s the difference between eating disorders and disordered eating?

      Throughout this article, we refer to “disordered eating.” You may have come across the term “eating disorders” before, and while the two terms may sound similar, there are actually differences. 

      The term eating disorders refers to a set of mental health conditions that can be diagnosed. They can only be diagnosed by a health-care professional. You can learn more about different types of eating disorders from NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Centre)

      The term disordered eating refers to specific thoughts, particular behaviours and certain attitudes about food, eating and / or body image that can interfere with a person’s daily life. Examples may include:

      • •  thinking you must have a certain body type to have value
      • •  changing the way you eat to try to get a certain body type
      • •  labelling foods as “good” or “bad”
      • •  feeling anxious around mealtimes
      • •  eating alone or in secret
      • •  etc.

      Someone with an eating disorder may experience disordered eating thoughts, behaviours and attitudes, but not everyone that experiences disordered eating has an eating disorder. Regardless of whether you have a diagnosis for what you’re experiencing or not, you can learn ways to manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviours — and plan for your safety — so that you’re more familiar with what to do to take care of yourself / get support when you need it.

      To learn more about disordered eating, you can tap this link, scroll down and select “Disordered eating” from NEDIC’s list of definitions. 

    • Why might I want to have a safety plan to cope with disordered eating?

      If a person continues to experience symptoms of disordered eating over time, they may start to experience more intense and harmful thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For some people, disordered eating may be an early sign of an eating disorder. Eating disorders can lead to various physical health concerns (e.g. low heart rate, fainting, effects on growth, etc.). Recognizing when / how disordered eating affects your daily life and understanding what coping strategies / supports work best for you may help you manage disordered eating and reduce potential harm to your well-being. A safety plan can help you identify ways to cope and plan how to get support when you may need it.

    • How can I create a safety plan to cope with disordered eating?

      Creating a safety plan ahead of time (e.g. when you’re feeling calm and in control of your thoughts, etc.) can help you understand yourself and what tools may be available to you for support when you’re navigating disordered eating. You may also find it worthwhile to ask people you trust to help you create your safety plan (e.g. a family / community member, professional counsellortrained, volunteer crisis responder, youth group leader, Elder, etc.). The person(s) you trust may be able to offer perspective, provide suggestions and / or keep a copy of your safety plan for when you need it (if you’re comfortable with that). 
      It’s OK if your plan changes over time as you find coping strategies that work better for you, you discover new strategies or your situation changes. Your safety plan is unique to you and it’s OK if any prompts / examples offered in this article don’t apply to you. For your plan to be helpful when you’re experiencing disordered eating, we encourage you to make your plan as specific to you and your life as possible. 

      The image below shows one example of how you can format your safety plan. You can map out your plan in any other way that may work for you, too. As you continue to scroll through this page, you’ll learn more about how to fill it out, including examples. Try to keep in mind this resource isn’t supposed to tell you what to do — you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do or follow the prompts exactly. This is simply a guide.

      Download the PDF tool here.

      You can tap on the link to the PDF tool to fill out your own safety plan. You can begin by filling it out on your device and then save / print / take a photo of it. Or you can start by downloading it and then printing a copy to fill out offline. You can also come back to this tool any time if you’re unable to save / print a copy now.

      Consider where you want to keep your safety plan so you can find it quickly when you need it. For example, you could keep / save it on a phone, tablet or computer (if you have access to one), in a notebook / journal or in places you may experience disordered eating thoughts / behaviours (e.g. in a kitchen, in a bathroom, by a scale, etc.).

    • Identify what may contribute to disordered eating for you​​​​​​​

      If you’ve ever experienced disordered eating before, you may be aware of some familiar patterns, situations and / or events in which you may start to notice disordered eating thoughts, feelings or behaviours (e.g. comments by others about your body and / or eating habits, exposure to content that shames certain body types, etc.). Understanding what stressors or events can contribute to thoughts / feelings of insecurity about your body and other difficult emotions could help you recognize when you may need to use your coping strategies or get support.

      • Things that may bring up disordered eating for me:

    • Reflect on how disordered eating is affecting your life

      It may be helpful to think about the ways disordered eating is affecting your daily life. Try thinking about all of the things that make you happy or hold meaning and importance to you. Consider how those things are potentially more challenging with disordered eating thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example, participating in physical activities (e.g. your favourite sport / game, dancing, exercising, riding a bike, etc.) may be more challenging if your body isn’t well nourished. You may also find it more difficult to enjoy a spontaneous meal with someone you care about. These are just some examples of the ways disordered eating could affect your life. Your experiences are unique and you may identify other ways in which your thoughts, feelings and behaviours are affecting things in your life. Understanding where your values and actions don’t match may help you consider new coping strategies / actions that better fit with what matters to you. 

      • •  Things in my life that are more difficult with disordered eating:

    • Notice signs that tell you when you may need support

      It can also be helpful to identify warning signs that you may engage in disordered eating. Warning signs can be changes in your thoughts (e.g. thinking “I’m not good enough,” etc.), feelings (e.g. feeling worried, insecure, overwhelmed, etc.), behaviours (e.g. avoiding social gatherings that involve food, etc.) and / or bodily sensations (e.g. feeling hungry, etc.). It can also be helpful to consider what changes other people around you may notice, and how they can know when and how to offer support. Not all changes in your thoughts, feelings, behaviours and bodily sensations are signals that you’re engaging / may engage in harmful actions. But by recognizing your warning signs, you might know when it may be helpful to connect with your supports / use your coping strategies.

      • •  Things that tell me I may need support (e.g. certain thoughts, specific feelings, particular behaviours, etc.):

    • Use your coping strategies to manage difficult thoughts / feelings in the moment

      There are things you can do to take care of yourself, your body and your eating habits if you’re navigating disordered eating. Can you remember what’s worked for you in the past? It can be helpful to think about things you’ve learned / tried before that you can either try on your own, or with people you trust, to manage difficult thoughts / feelings in the moment. You may find it useful to have a list of go-to strategies you can choose from when you begin to notice your warning signs or you’re experiencing disordered eating. If one strategy isn’t feeling helpful in the moment, you can try another. Having a list to pick and choose from may help you to try a variety of strategies until you find the one you need. Here are a few ideas to consider that may help you cope with disordered eating:

      • •  name your emotions (e.g. “I’m feeling sad, frustrated, anxious…,” etc.) to help you remind yourself you’re more than what you’re feeling in this moment and the emotions you’re experiencing will pass
      • •  practise self-acceptance by trying to move your thinking away from the things you can’t change about yourself and reflecting on your body’s strengths and abilities rather than appearance 
      • practise mindfulness by noticing your thoughts, emotions and the way your body feels without judgment 
      • •  distract yourself by doing something you enjoy or trying something new (e.g. drawing, connecting with nature, dancing, watching a TV show / movie, reading, attending a community event, playing a game, etc.)
      • •  spend time connecting with someone you care about (in-person or virtually)
      • •  change the way you talk to yourself by writing / typing / recording / etc. positive affirmations (uplifting phrases or statements) about yourself (e.g. “I am enough just the way I am,” etc.) and posting them in places where you can easily refer to them (e.g. stuck on a mirror, saved as a background on a device, etc.) 
      • •  take a break from scrolling if you haven’t been feeling good on social media (or try following a new account that inspires you!)
      • •  ground yourself by focusing on a breathing exercisereleasing tension in your body and / or engaging in mind-body movements such as yoga
      • •  journal about your thoughts


      You can learn about more strategies for coping with disordered eating from NEDIC. 

      • •  Ways I can manage difficult thoughts / feelings in the moment:

    • Consider ways to create safer spaces for yourself

      In addition to using your coping strategies to manage difficult thoughts / feelings, you may consider ways you can create safer spaces wherever you are. 

      It may be helpful to come up with a plan with someone you trust for how you can make your living space safer when you’re coping with disordered eating. This may include asking someone to limit your access to items that could be potentially harmful or contribute to disordered eating (e.g. substances used to purge, scales, etc.). 

      You may also consider how the people you spend your time with affect the way you feel. Notice how you feel after having social interactions with people in your life. Are there ways you can spend more time with people who you feel uplifted by, people who eat / enjoy a variety of different foods, nourish themselves when they’re hungry, accept their body as it is, etc.?

      If being in your physical space feels unsafe, are there places you can spend time outside of your current space more regularly (e.g. a community centre, friend’s house, place of worship, library, youth centre, etc.)? You can try researching what community resources may be available nearest your location to help you discover potentially safer spaces. 

      If you’re spending time on the internet, you may also consider how you can create a safer virtual space for yourself. The types of media you engage with can affect your thoughts / feelings about your body, the food you eat and the choices you make. You might consider how you could remove / hide unhelpful content to create a safer online space for yourself. For example:

      • •  blocking or muting accounts that promote weight loss, dieting or disordered eating
      • •  unfollowing accounts that contribute to feelings of guilt / shame for your body / eating 
      • •  unfollowing accounts that share tips / information they aren’t qualified to give

      You may instead follow accounts that celebrate the diversity of human experiences, share positive or neutral messaging about body image or share posts that get you excited, inspired, smiling or reflective. If you find yourself automatically opening social media apps even when you feel unhappy while on them, you can consider putting the apps in a subfolder on a separate page of your device, setting screen time limits for your apps or temporarily deactivating your account(s) to explore how it feels.   

      • •  Things I can do to create safer spaces for myself:

    • List your personal / professional supports

      It’s OK if you feel unsure, nervous, overwhelmed or any other emotion at the thought of sharing your experiences with the people in your life. And you don’t have to navigate these feelings / experiences on your own. If you find it difficult to manage your thoughts, feelings and / or behaviours, it can be helpful to know whom you can connect with for help when you need it. You can do this by mapping out your community of support and creating a list of people / services you can connect with when you’re finding it hard to cope on your own. Consider people who you feel comfortable opening up to whom you trust and feel respected around. An example of a trusted person may be a family / community member, teacher, person from your place of worship, Elder, friend, youth group leader, etc. 

      In your safety plan, you can even get specific with the role each person in your list can play (e.g. “this person is a great listener,” “this person helps distract me,” “this person can give me a ride to appointments,” etc.). You can also consider alternatives ahead of time in case your contacts aren’t available. You may want to consider how you can connect with each person (e.g. call / text, chat online, walk to their house, write them a letter, etc.). If you’re feeling nervous about connecting for support, you can prepare ahead of time by exploring how to have a tough conversation

      Not sure who to contact? You can use NEDIC’s Service Provider Directory to search for support services that may be available nearest your area. Maybe connecting with a professional anonymously feels the safest for you — that’s OK. You can do this by contacting Kids Help Phone’s professional counsellors or NEDIC's support workers and trained volunteers.

      • •  People / services I can connect with for support:

      “Thank you so much for listening and not dismissing my concerns. You actually understand and helped so much with feeling like I'm not alone and that I'm not wrong for asking for help. I really do appreciate all your time tonight and feel a lot more hopeful now that there's a plan.”

      – person contacting the National Eating Disorder Information Centre

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) would like to thank Kids Help Phone for their contributions to this article and for supporting youth mental health and well-being across Canada.