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Seven Ways To Support A Loved One With An Eating Disorder

Eating Disorders

Feb 21-27 – National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 

Nearly 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and 95% of those individuals are between the ages 12 and 25. Affecting every gender, race, and ethnic group, eating disorders have the highest risk of death of any mental illness. From February 21-27, we recognize National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. If you have a loved one who suffers from an eating disorder, these are seven ways that you can support them. 

Take it seriously.

Don’t just shrug it off. So you’ve got body issues? Welcome to the club. These statements make it seem as though it’s not a big deal. Despite the fact that over 20 million women and 10 million men have an eating disorder (ED) at some point in their lives, not everyone has one. When people write off revealing statements, it’s just a way to ignore and depress other people’s stories because they feel uncomfortable facing the truth.

Knowledge is power.

Even after a diagnosis and the beginning of treatment, many people avoid talking about their loved one’s ED. It becomes the elephant in the room. There are many misconceptions and stigmas associated with mental and physical disorders, but when left unaddressed they only get worse. Education is crucial.

Knowledge is empowering. It’s true when they say, “The more we know, the better we can do.” Seek out advice from a mental health professional, a doctor, or another reputable source right away. Do the research together. Discover the wealth of resources and testimonials from those who have recovered.

Be present

You need to be there for your loved one. ED’s are lonely and isolating. You may be scared, confused, or worried for your loved one, but those shared feelings could bring you together instead of driving a wedge between you. Be supportive and provide a safe space where your loved one can talk, vent, and share without fear of judgment. Listen, validate, and accept them. Give hugs, assuring them that they are not alone. Sharing openly removes the power of secrecy, guilt, and shame. 

Set Boundaries

If the relationship turns toxic, be brave enough to set boundaries. Do not be afraid to say, “you’re being hurtful and this needs to stop.” Advocate and protect your own emotional and mental health. Boundaries work both ways and you cannot be expected to be available 24/7 for difficult, emotionally draining conversations if they are hurting your own health. Also do not be surprised if your loved one sets their own boundaries and requests that you do not talk about weight or their ED. 

Individuals with an ED have to be realistic about their ability to manage situations, and sometimes it’s more beneficial to just say “no” and be uncomfortable or risk disappointing someone than be a detriment to their recovery. Well-meaning family members or friends may try to derail progress, but it’s important to not impede recovery. Be honest about what is working and what isn’t. 

Encourage treatment.

Often ED’s begin as a way to exert control over their life, and the ED ends up controlling their life instead. The process of getting help and on the road to recovery can take time. There is a misconception that ED’s are just about food. The disorder often goes deeper, becoming a coping mechanism, rooted in stress, trauma, or fear. Treatment can be effective when it adequately addresses underlying issues and the contributing sources, in addition to the typical ED symptoms. Treatment is not about setting a goal, but providing practical methods for managing stress, emotional pain, and avoiding triggers. Be encouraging to your loved one, helping them find their way to the best treatment solution for them. 

Make mealtime less stressful.

For those with an ED, mealtimes are hard and can be an emotional rollercoaster. Family members may plead, push, or yell. Creating healthy routines can be difficult, even after treatment. Routines can be more than a mental and physical adjustment, but an emotional challenge as well. Try to find ways to make mealtimes easier, or more fun.  ED treatment typically involves meetings with a dietician, physician, or nutritionist to create a personalized meal plan. Learning healthy eating habits and repairing damaged relationships with food takes perseverance and hard work. Stick to the prescribed plan, but try to find ways to make it easier. As for ways you can be supportive during the process. 

Even after treatment, establishing a healthy routine was difficult.. Her routine was about more than a physical and mental adjustment, it was an emotional challenge too. Eating was stressful, but there were times we made the moment fun. We talked and laughed and — using distraction to our advantage — eating became more manageable.

Recovery takes time

Progress isn’t linear — it’s personal and complex. 

Don’t be discouraged if your loved one makes progress and then relapses. A good day may be followed by a bad one. The healing process can begin by simply being there and opening up. 

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