How To Talk To Someone About Their Eating Disorder
The decision to make a change is rarely an easy one for someone with an eating disorder. If the eating disorder has left them malnourished, it can distort the way they thinkabout their body, the world around them, even your motivations for trying to help. Bombarding them with dire warnings about the health consequences of their eating disorder or trying to bully them into eating normally probably wont work. Eating disorders often fill an important role in the persons lifea way to cope with unpleasant emotionsso the allure can be strong. Since you may be met with defensiveness or denial, youll need to tread carefully when broaching the subject.
Pick a good time. Choose a time when you can speak to the person in private without distractions or constraints. You dont want to have to stop in the middle of the conversation because of other obligations! Its also important to have the conversation at a time of emotional calm. Dont try to have this conversation right after a blow up.
Explain why youre concerned. Be careful to avoid lecturing or criticizing, as this will only make your loved one defensive. Instead, refer to specific situations and behaviors youve noticed, and why they worry you. Your goal at this point is not to offer solutions, but to express your concerns about the persons health, how you much you love them, and your desire to help.
What not to do
Acceptance And Commitment Therapy
ACT asks you to focus on changing your actions as opposed to your thoughts or feelings.
A principle of ACT is that the behaviors associated with mental health conditions come from responses to unpleasant feelings like anxiety or pain.
People undergoing ACT are asked to examine for themselves what their core values are. Theyre then asked to develop goals that help them better satisfy these values.
The aim is to accept all feelings including the unpleasant ones and to commit to changing your actions so they better align with your core values. Through this, its believed that you can lead a better life and begin to feel better.
ACT is a viable treatment for eating disorders, but more research is needed to see if its effective as a standalone therapy.
But Do Set Boundaries For Your Own Self
Having a friend or loved one with an eating disorder is exhausting and frustrating as hell. Seek out care for yourself and find time alone support for others with eating disorders can be draining, particularly in what is sometimes a long, drawn-out battle. Be caring, but also respectful of your own energy levels.
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Know The Warning Signs
Disordered eating can manifest in many ways. If you notice things out of the ordinary, do your research: it’s not all about restricting food or extreme dieting. Hiding food, eating at odd times, over-exercising, use of laxatives, obsessive portion-counting and calorie awareness, horrible self-confidence â all can be signs that something’s severely wrong.
Understanding Your Loved Ones Eating Disorder
Eating disorders involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviorsfollowing rigid diets, bingeing on food in secret, throwing up after meals, obsessively counting calories. Its not easy to watch someone you care about damage their healthespecially when the solution appears, at least on the outside, to be simple. But eating disorders are more complicated than just unhealthy dietary habits. At their core, theyre attempts to deal with emotional issues and involve distorted, self-critical attitudes about weight, food, and body image. Its these negative thoughts and feelings that fuel the damaging behaviors.
People with eating disorders use food to deal with uncomfortable or painful emotions. Restricting food is used to feel in control. Overeating temporarily soothes sadness, anger, or loneliness. Purging is used to combat feelings of helplessness and self-loathing. Over time, people with an eating disorder lose the ability to see themselves objectively and obsessions over food and weight come to dominate everything else in their lives. Their road to recovery begins by identifying the underlying issues that drive their eating disorder and finding healthier ways to cope with emotional pain.
While you cant force a person with an eating disorder to change, you can offer your support and encourage treatment. And that can make a huge difference to your loved ones recovery.
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Thoughts On Doing More Good Than Harm When Someone You Care About Is Ill
What should you do if you think or know that someone you care about has an eating disorder? What shouldnt you do? What can you do?
This post is primarily for you, the bystander: for you who watch someone who matters to you do themselves harm.
Before I go any further, though, if youre reading this and you know or suspect that someone else is worrying about you, and however that makes you feel, you might consider reading this too. If you read on, I hope that reading might help give you a little bit of insight into how it is for that person who is concerned.
On both sides, the failure to really understand how the other feels or what the other is doing can be a real stumbling block. This is often said of the person suffering from an eating disorder: no one who hasnt had one can really understand. But it applies the other way around too: if you havent experienced the fear, the helplessness, the anger, and, not least, precisely the incomprehension of looking on as someone dear to you apparently knowingly destroys themselves, its difficult quite to imagine what its like.
The upshot of this little philosophical digression is that everything is likely to go better if an effort at understanding how the other might be feeling is made on both sides.
So, back to the questions I started with.
Phase One: Early Uncertainties
Use I Statements And Stick To Facts
Mention behaviors that you have personally witnessed, from your own point of view. “You” statements can make it sound like the other person has done something wrong. For example, instead of “You never eat,” try “I’ve noticed that you barely touch your dinner anymore, and that worries me.” Likewise, “I’ve heard you getting sick in the bathroom several times lately” is less accusatory than “You’ve been making yourself throw up.”
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The Face Of Eating Disorders
The face of eating disorders was once supermodels and ballet dancersmost of them young women, with clearly emaciated figures and a host of health issues. This picture is no longer the case, as it is now known that both men and women can have eating disorders, or experience disordered eating, regardless of age, profession, or other markers. Recognizing that national eating disorder rates suggest these disorders can affect people of all ages and backgrounds is an important step toward mental health treatment and understanding. It is now understood that eating disorders are mental health issues, rather than simple issues of depressed body image or workplace pressures.
The face of national eating disorders varies tremendously. Not all people with eating disorders will have a gaunt, thin appearance, nor will all people with eating disorders refrain from eating food or use purging as a means of controlling weight.
If Youre Concerned About A Loved One
A friend or family member that has an eating disorder may not believe they need to seek treatment. They may also be defensive about topics like their diet and weight.
If youre worried that someone close to you has an eating disorder, speak with them openly and compassionately about your concerns.
Encourage them to seek treatment. If theyre scared or unsure, offering to go with them may be helpful.
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You’re Worth More Than Your Eating Disorder
Something that’s often forgotten and overlooked, is that the person suffering and the eating disorder are two separate things. Someone has an eating disorder, no one is an eating disorder. The terms “anorexic” and “bulimic” were created and have been used wrongly. Someone has anorexia, they’re not an anorexic. Hearing from someone that you’re worth more than the hell you’re going through gives that little sparkle of hope that can help someone through a hard time.
How Are Eating Disorders Treated
Treatment will be different depending on the type of eating disorder your friend or relative has.
It will usually involve some kind of talking therapy because help with eating and putting on weight alone is usually not enough.
Your friend or relative will talk to a therapist about the emotional difficulties that led to their eating disorder, and they will learn healthier ways to cope with these feelings. Their treatment may also involve them working through a guided self-help programme.
During their treatment, they will also have regular health checks to look after their physical health.
Treatment will take place over a number of weeks so your friend or relative can get used to the changes slowly. The earlier they start, the better their chances of making a good recovery.
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Treatments For Eating Disorders
The right treatment approach for each person depends on their specific symptoms, issues, and strengths, as well as the severity of the disorder. To be most effective, treatment for an eating disorder must address both the physical and psychological aspects of the problem. The goal is to treat any medical or nutritional needs, promote a healthy relationship with food, and teach constructive ways to cope with unpleasant emotions and lifes challenges.
A team approach is often best. Those who may be involved in treatment include medical doctors, mental health professionals, and nutritionists. The participation and support of family members also makes a big difference in the success of eating disorder treatment.
Medical treatment. The first priority is to address and stabilize any serious health issues. Hospitalization or residential treatment may be necessary if your loved one is dangerously malnourished, suffering from medical complications, severely depressed or suicidal, or resistant to treatment. Outpatient treatment is an option when the patient is not in immediate medical danger.
Nutritional counseling. Dietitians or nutritionists can help your loved one design balanced meal plans, set dietary goals, and reach or maintain a healthy weight. Counseling may also involve education about proper nutrition.
Supporting A Loved Ones Recovery
Recovering from an eating disorder takes time. There are no quick fixes or miracle cures, so its important to have patience and compassion. Dont put unnecessary pressure on your loved one by setting unrealistic goals or demanding progress on your own timetable. Provide hope and encouragement, praise each small step forward, and stay positive through struggles and setbacks.
Learn about eating disorders. The more you know, the better equipped youll be to help your loved one, avoid pitfalls, and cope with challenges.
Listen without judgment. Show that you care by asking about your loved ones feelings and concernsand then truly listening. Resist the urge to advise or criticize. Simply let your friend or family member know that theyre being heard. Even if you dont understand what theyre going through, its important to validate your loved ones feelings.
Be mindful of triggers. Avoid discussions about food, weight, eating or making negative statements about your own body. But dont be afraid to eat normally in front of someone with an eating disorder. It can help set an example of a healthy relationship with food.
Get more help
Almost Anorexic Is My Relationship with Food a Problem?
The Parent Toolkit Advice for parents of children with eating disorders.
Eating Disorders Causes, effects, warning signs, and treatment of eating disorders in kids and teens.
Treatment Tips on eating disorder treatment.
Hotlines and support
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Restricting Food Or Dieting
- Making excuses to avoid meals or situations involving food
- Eating only tiny portions or specific low-calorie foods, and often banning entire categories of food such as carbs and dietary fat
- Obsessively counting calories, reading food labels, and weighing portions
- Developing restrictive food rituals such as eating foods in certain orders, rearranging food on a plate, excessive cutting or chewing.
- Taking diet pills, prescription stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin, or even illegal drugs such as amphetamines
Your Support Could Be Their Key To Recovery
Knowing how to help someone with an eating disorder can be difficult, but its important to speak up if you recognize changes in someone you care about. Your support can be one of the most critical elements in helping your friend or loved one recover.
Many times, people struggling with an eating disorder do their best to hide it. Eating disorders are known as a disease of disconnection and often cause those with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating to isolate themselves to maintain their symptoms.
Those struggling with an eating disorder may fear talking about it. They may not be ready to change, or perhaps the idea of life without an eating disorder seems foreign to them. But as someone who cares, your job is to encourage change to help them live a life not dictated by worries around weight, shape, and size. You have to help them be honest without judging their struggles.
It may be hard to understand why someone may engage in behaviors that put their life and health at risk. Its important to realize that someone struggling with an eating disorder isnt bad. They didnt choose to develop an eating disorder. Rather, they just got stuck, likely over time.
Letting your loved one know you care and are willing to help them find a path to recovery can be life-changing and life-saving.
Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. You can help.
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I’m Here For You And I’m Not Going To Leave
We all need someone there sometimes. Everyone needs to talk to someone sometimes. And yes, we know it’s getting a bit repetitive and boring. But the same fears, the same struggles come up again and again. And knowing that someone is there for us to listen, to find distraction or just to talk to about random things it all means more than you could ever imagine.
As I’ve said before, and I won’t stop saying it recovery is difficult, it’s tiring and stressful. You put your heart and soul in trying to eat again and it takes the life out of you. Don’t mistake not showering, not brushing teeth or hair, or any other self care for laziness. They’re exhausted and need a friend, not a critic. It’ll get better, it just takes time. Don’t judge what you haven’t experienced.
There’s the everlasting fear that people find the constant “whining” about food/body image will scare them off. Don’t let it scare you off, stick with your friend. It’s going to be worth it when the day comes that they walk up to you to ask if you fancy one of their home made cupcakes and you both delve into one.
Remember The Big Picture
Eating disorders happen for many different reasons. Many people who have an eating disorder come from families in which other members have eating disorders or have other conditions such as depression. This doesn’t mean that a family member caused the disorder. It simply means that these conditions seem more likely to happen in that family.
You can avoid guilt and self-blame by using the following tips.
- Show support for your family member who has an eating disorder. Say things such as, “I can see how hard this is for you. You’re doing a good job.”
- Don’t focus attention only on the family member who is in treatment. Spend time with other members of your family and your friends.
- Remind yourself that this is a long-lasting disorder. It will take time for changes to happen.
- Forgive yourself if you think you said something that was not appropriate, and forgive your family member if he or she reverts to unhealthy eating behaviours.
- Do not look for the reason for the disorder. Work toward changing things for the better.
- Look at your own eating behaviours, and change the ones that seem unhealthy.
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Are There Different Types Of Disorders
Yes, eating disorders vary greatly, with people exhibiting different attitudes and symptoms. Binging, also known as bulimia, is typical for emotional eaters who seek out food to fill a void in their lives. It is often a sign of other extreme mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. To overcome the intense feelings and thoughts, people look to food as compensation. Symptoms include a reoccurring sore throat, use of diuretics and constant bathroom trips, especially after meals,
In addition, anorexia occurs when someone views food as the way to becoming fat. Rather than looking for healthy portions, these eaters starve themselves to stay thin. While some people restrict their calorie counts, others eat and then purge immediately after, ridding the body of nourishment. Those suffering from anorexia may experience dizziness, dehydration, reflux, and constipation.
Walk Out Together: How To Be A Good Friend Through Recovery
As your friend comes to terms with her struggle, you can help by looking up local treatment centers that specialize in eating disorders .
You can also model healthy habits. Eat for energy, and exercise for strength, letting any remarks about food reflect your intentions.
Above all, do your best to maintain balance. Give space when needed, but dont enable. Encourage change, but dont expect to be the hero of her story.6 Be her sidekick. After all, thats exactly what she needs.
1 Janniello, Lizzie. 12 Tips for Talking With Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder. Project Heal, February 10, 2017.
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How To Help A Friend With An Eating Disorder
Trying to talk to someone you suspect has an eating disorder can be a daunting prospect. But this tricky conversation can be an essential first step to getting them the specialist support they need. Once they have confided in you, there’s a lot you can do to support them too.
Here are some ways you can help.