- Posted by Jon Harju
- On February 5, 2020
It can be difficult to watch someone you care about struggle with a mental health problem, particularly if you perceive the solution to be simple. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that go beyond adopting a simple change in eating habits since they are not about the food or weight.
Eating disorders affect people of all ages, races, ethnic groups and genders. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD ), report at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. Sadly, when it comes to seeking treatment only a third of people suffering from anorexia nervosa seek help, and only an estimated 6% of people with bulimia seek support. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) reports anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – it is estimated that 10% of individuals with anorexia nervosa will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.
With those startlingly stats in mind, if you’re trying to help a loved one with an eating disorder, know that you’re not alone.
Understanding your loved one’s eating disorder
Eating disorders cause a disturbance in a person’s eating behaviours. But at the heart of an eating disorder is often a distorted, self-critical viewpoint of body image, weight or control. It’s these negative thoughts and feelings that fuel the damaging behaviours.
People with eating disorders use food to deal with uncomfortable or painful emotions.
- Restricting food can be used to feel in control.
- Overeating can be seen to temporarily soothe a person’s sadness, anger, boredom or loneliness.
- Purging on food is often used to combat feelings of self-loathing and helplessness.
People with an eating disorder consequently lose the ability to see themselves with clarity. Weight and food obsessions dominate everything in their lives. Their road to recovery begins by identifying what issues lie beneath that drive and finding healthier ways to cope with emotional pain.
“I lift my arm out of the water. It’s a log. Put it back under and it blows up even bigger. People see the log and call it a twig. They yell at me because I can’t see what they see. Nobody can explain to me why my eyes work different than theirs. Nobody can make it stop.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls.
A person with an eating disorder needs much support and encouragement to seek the professional help they need for treatment. Your support can be instrumental in their recovery.
5 tips on how to support a loved one’s recovery:
- Show patience
Recovery of an eating disorder takes time, so it’s essential to show your loved one patience and compassion. Try to avoid placing unnecessary pressure on them with unrealistic goals or demands to see progress. Do not try to shame, argue, manipulate, or bargain them into new eating habits. Instead, give them hope and encouragement, praising each small step towards health, and stay positive through their tough days or setbacks.
- Gather knowledge
Learn more about eating disorders to help you gain greater awareness and insight into the challenges your loved one may face in recovery. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to help them. Access the many great written and visual online resources from the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) along with discovering local support groups and treatment centres.
- Be mindful
Be mindful of potential triggers to their eating disorder. Try to avoid any discussions about food, eating or weight. Be aware of your own perspective or negative statements you may make regarding your own body. Strive to eat normally in front of someone with an eating disorder as it can help set an example of having a healthy relationship with food.
- Listen well
Listen to them without judgment and try not to criticize or advise them. People with eating disorders often feel overwhelmed or silenced, therefore seeking help lets them feel heard and supported during this difficult time. Even if you don’t understand or relate to what your loved one may be experiencing, it’s essential to validate their feelings and listen to them.
- Take care of yourself
It’s important not to become so preoccupied with your loved one’s eating disorder that you consequently neglect your own needs. Make sure you have time for relaxation and gather your own support either from a friend, confidante, therapist or support group. It’s important to talk about your own feelings so as not to feel so emotionally or socially isolated.
Recovery is a journey
Like many mental illnesses, having an eating disorder is not like waking up with a physical illness, e.g. a cold. You don’t get out of bed one day and feel better. Recovery from eating disorders is long-term and sometimes requires lifelong support.
Try to remember you’re unable to control your loved one’s eating disorder, acceptance of this is vital to both you and your loved one’s relationship and journey.
One of the best things you can do for someone with an eating disorder is to let them know that they are loved and respected regardless of how they look or by the choices they make. Never underestimate the value of just being there for them.