Hannah suffered with an atypical Eating Disorder as a result of an undiagnosed chronic digestive illness called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). After 15 years of Anorexia and Bulimia, she is now fully recovered and has since trained as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, Master NLP Practitioner, and Life Coach. Hannah helps women all over the world to unleash themselves from struggles with food, their emotions, and the fear of not being good enough. Hannah is also a patient advocate for the Ehlers Danlos Society, working to raise awareness of the link between digestive disorders and the development of Eating Disorders.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Hi, my name is Hannah. I am originally from the UK, but I now live in Sydney, Australia. Absolutely loving the outdoor life and all this sunshine! I have worked in the field of Mental Health and Psychology for the last 12 years and trained for two years to become a Master of Cognitive Hypnotherapy, NLP, and Coaching. I am now blessed to run my own private practice, dedicated to helping other women struggling with food, their emotions, and digestive issues.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Are you able to tell our readers the story of how you struggled with mental illness/challenges?
My mental health challenges took some time to develop and were tied to struggles with my physical health. I started suffering with digestive problems from the age of 13, which gradually worsened over time. Nobody could find out what was wrong with me or could give me any answers and I was passed from doctor to doctor constantly being told it was all in my head, or I need to work on my stress levels.
As my physical symptoms worsened, so did my mental health, until I unfortunately developed an Eating Disorder at 19 years old. This period was met with so much blame, self-loathing, and isolation. I felt totally overwhelmed and like I was going round and round in circles. It felt like I was constantly playing cat and mouse. I knew I had to eat more food more regularly, but when I did I would end up having digestive flare-ups that lasted for days! Not to mention all the medications I was having to take and their nasty side effects. Food became highly stressful as I never knew what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, or how much. My body image was also highly impacted by my digestive disorder due to the amount of bloating, water retention, and weight fluctuations—and also my Eating Disorder; I had a double whammy to contend with!
What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you could to get better?
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting on my bed one Friday night, so weak, exhausted, and in so much pain. I just broke down. I had hit rock bottom and I remember thinking: “Is this how my life is going to be now?” That thought absolutely terrified me. I knew that I could not go on any longer trying to cope with both disorders alone. The only way I was going to make any progress was to reach out for help and face the reality of what was going on in my life.
I also found keeping a symptom and feelings journal helped me to deal with the overwhelm and the really tough days when I would become disheartened at my progress.
Were there warning signs that you wished someone noticed?
As a result of my digestive problems, I developed a fear around certain food groups, I restricted my food intake due to uncomfortable feelings of fullness, avoided meals due to pain, bloating, and feeling sick, and made excuses not to eat. Looking back on this time of my life, it is clear that all the behaviors I was displaying were highly similar to those of Eating Disorders. However, I was oblivious to these signs and blamed everything on my digestive problems. This prevented me from being able to see what else was going on.
What coping strategies did you use to help you overcome your challenge?
I personally found exercise extremely helpful in dealing with both mental and physical symptoms. Exercise was my escape when things all felt too much. I would just plug in my headphones, blast some house music, and get outside for a walk, run, or cycle. This would help shift the anxiety, stress, and overwhelm I was feeling and enable me to address any problems or challenges in a much calmer, more logical manner. Movement was also extremely helpful in easing my digestive symptoms such as bloating, water retention, and nausea, which had a positive knock-off effect on my mental state.
I also found keeping a symptom and feelings journal helped me to deal with the overwhelm and the really tough days when I would become disheartened at my progress. Trying to manage both disorders can become complicated and confusing, with signs and symptoms overlapping. I would find it difficult to know what my next step was or where I should be focusing my energy and attention. This journal allowed me to keep track of any patterns, links, or triggers, which I could then look at objectively and commit to just one thing at a time to focus on and work on improving.
What are some things that you learned that helped you feel better?
I started seeing a Cognitive Hypnotherapist who taught me so much about my mind and how it worked, which helped me to let go of the blame and guilt I was carrying. She taught me that my struggles with food had been stored deep in my subconscious mind, a part of the brain that cannot be accessed by conscious thought, discipline, and willpower. I had to learn the language of my subconscious mind, which only understands feelings and associations. This was a huge lightbulb moment for me as all my desperate attempts to reason, analyze, and understand my behaviors were making me feel worse rather than better!
She also taught me that behind all our behaviors is a positive intention, even those that are bringing us harm and pain. For me, this all came back to feeling like I was enough. Once I started working on these core issues and rebuilding my relationship with myself, suddenly I found myself thinking, feeling, and acting differently around food and my digestive problems.
What are things that you had to accept in order to recover/maintain recovery?
Naturally, I am a very all or nothing person. When I made that decision, I had to get better, I went ALL in. However, with this trait comes impatience and impulsivity. I wanted everything to happen immediately! Unfortunately, due to the complexity of dealing with both an undiagnosed digestive disorder and an Eating Disorder, I had to accept that this would not be a quick fix. I had to open myself up to having input from a variety of different specialists and practitioners and take each day as it comes.
Are you willing to share some events/experiences from your past that might have contributed to the development of your challenges?
When I finally decided to seek help, I found the whole process extremely stressful. I struggled to find the right fit of doctors for both disorders and often found that I was put into a box according to a label that had been assigned to me, and this is what formed the basis of what treatment I was told I needed. It turns out that my digestive disorder was a rare illness, which needed a different approach to the norm. I remember one appointment I had with a Gastroenterologist who labeled me as having IBS within the first 5 minutes and proceeded to prescribe laxatives, which I had already tried in the past with little success. He refused to listen to my personal story and experiences and I left that appointment in pieces!
I also didn’t really fit any of the typical Eating Disorder labels and so I bounced from therapist to therapist and doctor to doctor without really feeling like I had found my ‘fit’ and the right support for me. This often made me question whether I could ever recover. I doubted myself and felt totally alone in my struggles.
Are you viewing these events differently now that you are recovered/in recovery?
Looking back, I can now see that these doctors and practitioners were just not the right fit for me. This was not a personal attack on me, there was nothing I did wrong, I just needed different support than what was offered. I have since learned that for every nine specialists who can’t help, there will be one who can! This also showed me just how much resilience I had to keep picking myself back up and keep on going, searching for my right fit. I don’t think I gave myself enough credit for my strength and tenacity, something which I really pride myself on now.
I have since learned that for every nine specialists who can’t help, there will be one who can!
Did your experience with mental illness/trauma help shape the way that you are leading your life? Did it give you a sense of meaning and purpose in this world?
Before my struggles with both disorders, I was a lost little girl. All my decisions were based on what I thought others wanted me to do or what I thought I should do. I was in constant need to please others and as a result I never really knew who I was or what I stood for. Those 15 years of pain changed me as a person as it actually allowed me to leave that old identity behind. I see that difficult time as absolutely essential for me to be where I am today and to have developed this mission to help other women going through similar struggles. You know what, looking back I wouldn’t have changed one thing, because by changing just one step in my journey it may not have led me to be the secure woman I am today with this new higher purpose to make a dent in the universe.
What advice would you give teenagers who are dealing with similar various challenges?
Growing up in today’s world is hard! So do not feel ashamed or guilty for going through what you are going through. You are doing the best that you can right now and everyone, at some point in their lives, comes up against a roadblock or struggle and has to reach out and ask for help. This is what makes us human after all. The longer you suffer in silence, the harder the challenges will become and the more difficult it will be to reach out for help. My one and only regret is that I didn’t reach out sooner, before things got really out of hand and required much more extreme measures to help me get well again.
What would you tell yourself at 14 knowing what you know today?
- You do not have to pretend you are okay all the time.
- Asking for help does not make you weak.
- Who you are is not only defined by what you can achieve.
- We are all fellow strugglers, so you are never alone.
My one and only regret is that I didn’t reach out sooner, before things got really out of hand and required much more extreme measures to help me get well again.
And how are things going for you today?
Days with my EDS can still be really tough to manage, but I am lucky that I have found the right team of experts to support me and I have a detailed physical and mental health care plan. I also now have so much knowledge and understanding about my condition and what I need to do to keep myself well. For me, knowledge is truly power, which has given me full freedom from my eating disorder. Going back to my old ways around food is not even an option for me as I have so many more effective coping strategies in my toolbox.
My partner and family have also been there for me throughout. I feel blessed to have such a close-knit support system where we are all on the same page and we all know our roles in how to help me live my life as free as possible from my EDS.
Based on your own experience are you able to share 5 things with our readers about how to support a loved one who is struggling with mental illness/addiction/challenges? If you can, can you share an example from your own experience?
- You do not have to be the fixer. My family was so desperate for me to get better, they fell into the role of trying to ‘make me better.’ However, they were trying to fill an unfillable role. This was the job of me and my specialist team of doctors, therapists, and health practitioners. What I really needed from them was to just be there. Give me a cuddle when things got too much, take my mind off my pain, help keep me focused on life rather than my struggles. Sometimes love, kindness, and reassurance are all that is needed.
- There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Like in my case, Eating Disorders can be accompanied by other co-existing conditions, such as digestive disorders or mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. It can be complicated and your loved one may need support from a variety of different specialists and health practitioners. For example, I saw a Gastroenterologist, Biofeedback nurse team, a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, a Naturopath, and a Colonic Hydrotherapist. If I had seen each professional in isolation I am certain I would not have been able to fully recover, but in combination, they each played their own essential part in helping me get to where I am today. It is okay to need more than one treatment approach. Everyone is different and everyone has different needs.
- Build a support system. This includes medical professionals, other health professionals, family, and friends. There are days that can feel really tough and days where your loved one may need different support than others. I realized fairly quickly that I could not just rely on one person or one professional to support me in everything I needed.
- A simple ‘how are you?’ goes a long way. As part of our own frustrations we can project our opinions onto our loved ones and try and tell them what they ‘should’ be doing. This often just comes down to love and care, however, sometimes all they need is for you to ask how they are doing today. My mother was a prime example of this, constantly telling me what I should try to eat, or avoid, what medications or supplements to take, and even how I should manage my emotions. Most of the time all I needed was her to ask how I was, nothing more.
- Listen and ask questions. We can be very quick to jump in with an opinion or suggestion, but sometimes all you need to do is truly listen and ask questions. This takes the pressure off you to feel like you have to have all the answers! For example, ‘What did that bring up for you?’, ‘How did that affect you?’, ‘What happened then?’, ‘If there was one thing you could do differently next time what would it be?’ My family never truly listened to me and I craved some space to just voice my thoughts and feelings with no judgment, no opinions, and no projected frustrations.
Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with challenges?
What you are going through right now is not a weakness. Nor are you broken or need to be ‘fixed.’ What has happened to you is not your fault and you have just been coping in the best way you know how! You already have everything you need inside you in order to overcome these challenges, you just may need a helping hand to guide you and show you the way.
Mental illnesses are common in the United States. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017). Mental illnesses include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Can you suggest 3-5 reasons why this has become such a critical issue recently?
- The increase of sedentary lifestyles and the rise of obesity.
- The pressures and fast pace of society.
- Smartphones and social media encouraging comparisons, judgment, and cyberbullying.
- Living in a toxic world full of worrying events, distress, and injustice.
- Rising drug and alcohol issues.
Based on your insight, what concrete steps can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities, and d) leaders do to address the core issues that are leading to this problem?
A). Individuals: We all have our part to play in improving not only our own lives but also the communities we live in and society. We must take responsibility for our choices, decisions, and behaviors and develop greater self-awareness of the impact of our actions on others and the impact of what is going on in our environment and on our own health and well-being.
B). Corporations: Corporations have huge power and ability to influence customers and followers in a positive way. I have worked with larger companies as part of my practice that are part of the initiative B1G1, business for good initiative. They are part of a community on a mission to create a world full of giving. Despite being an individual business, I too have signed up to B1G1 and have committed to giving 1% of my income from every new client I work with to help end world hunger. All businesses have the capacity to contribute to a higher purpose and impact society in a positive way.
C). Communities: There is strength in numbers! Numbers can create movements, and movements create awareness, and awareness creates change. Communities have a voice, which will be heard, and this is hugely empowering when it comes to addressing core issues such as mental health illnesses.
D). Leaders: Leaders have the power to make important decisions, which can change the rules of how we live. Not only that, they can bring awareness to topics and issues that many people may not have even considered as they go about their day to day lives. A strong leader has the ability to create a movement that can lead to change if their message is strong enough and resonates enough with the public to make them want to see changes in the world.
As you might be aware, one of the challenges of those dealing with mental illness is the harmful and dismissive sentiment of, “Why can’t you just control yourself/stop drinking/obsessing/using drugs…” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that dealing with mental illness is a very serious matter that requires the right attention?
Those who make the type of dismissive comments as the above need to understand that they are approaching mental illness from a healthy brain and a healthy model of the world. This is a totally different perspective to someone who is suffering. They are viewing the world from a different standpoint, one that is often met with pain, fear, confusion, and hopelessness. Trying to approach mental illness from a healthy model of the world will often lead to a lack of empathy, ignorance, and projected frustration at the individual. There needs to be more awareness of the life-threatening implications of mental illness and what can happen if individuals are stigmatized, mocked, ignored, or dismissed by those who will never be able to understand because they are viewing the world from a different place.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?
Training the Mind, Healing the Body by Dr Deepak Chopra: This was and still is my BIBLE with so many wonderful tips, information, and advice to support the healing of your body in addition to healing your mind. I found a few gems in here which have helped ease the symptoms of my digestive disorder dramatically.
Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff: I always found being kind to myself hard and would constantly criticize and blame myself for every mistake I made. I knew I had to develop the skill of self-compassion and this book helped me see that being kind to yourself does not necessarily mean bubble baths and face masks!
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr Joe Dispenza: This helped me build strategies to create a new version of myself, someone who now feels secure and comfortable in their own skin.
Just Eat It by Laura Thomas: A fantastic book if you are a newbie at intuitive eating—something which I found terrifying to start with!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everything will be ok in the end, if it is not ok then it is not the end.”
I remember constantly feeling frustrated that I wasn’t where I wanted to be or that I wasn’t doing enough to help my recovery. When I read this quote it immediately brought me peace. When you think about life, most things work out in one way or another, so sometimes you have to trust that where you are is absolutely where you are meant to be and that there is still more to come in your journey.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am just about to launch a brand new 1:1 programme called You Unleashed, offering 24 weeks of intensive support exclusively for women struggling with food issues. This combines Cognitive Hypnotherapy, with educational tools and practical strategies to help women leave feeling ready to start showing up, speaking up and standing out in their lives.
You are a very inspiring person. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I feel that there is not enough acceptance in the world. We are all wrapped up in our own lives with our own opinions, beliefs, judgments, and ideas and sometimes we can lose sight of how other people live. Just imagine a day without global judgment and criticism. Instead we remain open and curious about connecting and exploring worlds outside of our own. A sharing of ideas, concepts, and gaining knowledge and understanding to help broaden our minds beyond our own small bubble we call our reality. Curiosity for me was a game changer during my recovery and to this day I still put my curiosity hat on when meeting new people, exploring new places, and seeing new sights. I believe my mind has expanded and so has my heart as a result of this and I would love to inspire a movement so others could feel the same.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
YouTube Channel: Hannah Boardman
Join my private FB community: www.facebook.com/groups/Wunleashed
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/hani.master.your.mind
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!