Helping a Loved One with an Eating Disorder
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, at least 30 million people in the U.S. of all genders and ages suffer from an eating disorder ( https://anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/). Perhaps a loved one in your family or a close friend in your circle are one of those statistics. Many of us want to know how we can help and ways we can offer support rather than discourage or ignore the struggles of those loved ones. The following article will deal with understanding an eating disorder so that responding in a supportive way is possible.
The first myth we need to debunk is that an eating disorder arises from vanity over a person’s looks. This is in fact not the root cause of an eating disorder. Eating disorders stem from a need to control emotional pain, or circumstances in one’s life (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/eating-disorders/helping-someone-with-an-eating-disorder.htm). Just with any addiction, there is a drive and sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing the person can control what food they eat or do not eat, how, when, and where they eat it, and whether they vomit the food back up or not. There are a few types of eating disorders to understand. Anorexia Nervosa is when a person limits their food to an unhealthy amount of calories and also may obsess about exercise. Those who suffer with Anorexia often may look emaciated, and behave rigidly about how and when they eat any food. Bulimia is an eating disorder where food intake may or may not be limited but usually at some point a person will consume a large amount of food and then force themselves to vomit it back up. The third type of eating disorder is binge eating. This is a disorder where a person will consume enormous amounts of calories in one sitting and then suffer guilt and shame afterwards which only feeds the unhealthy cycle of this type of behavior. This is also what feeds the addictive behavior.
The common theme with all eating disorders is “a way to medicate emotional pain”. Often the emotional pain one has may not even be a conscious awareness for them as the eating disorder is a way to suppress their pain or distract from their pain and establish a semblance of control in one’s life. Some common struggles which may drive an individual to develop an eating disorder may be sexual, physical or emotional abuse, low self-esteem, bullying, loss of a family member, PTSD or the struggle with being overweight. At the core of these issues is the need to deal with the negative emotions/thought patterns causing the behavior and the healing of self.
When attempting to support someone with an eating disorder do not offer comments about how they look physically, instead offer love, kindness and encouragement to the person. If you are comfortable, ask them questions about what makes them happy and what makes them sad. Offer to spend time with them and build them up with encouraging words. Avoid discussions about food, calories and body image rather, focus on the internal person and praise them for the positive qualities that make them who they are.
Finally, in order for an individual with an eating disorder to recover it will require them to work through their emotional pain with a skilled counselor or therapist. By dealing with the root issues causing the emotional pain, a person can often work through healing themselves with the aid of a therapist and this can help them to change their behavior. It is however, important to understand as with any addiction while recovery is possible, the struggle to tend toward acting out on the eating disorder may linger for life, especially whenever stress or difficulties arise. By building a strong friendship and providing a “safe” emotional place for your loved one with an eating disorder you may be able to play a part in helping them talk about their struggles, rather than act out with harmful behavior. Furthermore, by building a strong alliance with your loved one it may give them the strength and hope needed to be courageous enough to seek professional help.